KENNER, La. (CN) – Federal hearings here on the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon focused on the blowout preventer and the cement seals of the rig, whose failures may have caused the fire, the deaths of 11 crew members and the disastrous oil spill. But the main defense against the blowout was the drilling mud that was removed shortly before the explosion, the panel’s co-chairman, Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen, and Minerals Management Service official Jason Matthews said on Tuesday.
Crew members of the Damon B. Bankston, a cargo ship leased by BP to haul away drilling mud, gave details of their response to the Deepwater Horizon’s April 20 explosion. The rig burned and sank after killing 11 people and seriously wounding 17. But the crew members’ stories of triumph and coordination were tempered by other testimony that indicated failures in regulation by the Minerals Management Service (MMS).
The Bankston’s Captain Alwin Landry said he knew something was wrong on the Deepwater Horizon when he saw a shower of mud spray his vessel.
“It was kind of a black rain coming down on my boat,” Landry said.
“At first I was kind of annoyed because I thought it was a broken hose. But when I saw the magnitude of the mud, I closed the well doors. I looked up to the derrick and saw mud coming out the top of the derrick. I called the oil rig and asked what was going on. After that, they advised me to go to 500-meter standby. Then there was a pause in their response and shortly after that, the first explosion on the rig occurred.”
Landry said he couldn’t get the Bankston 500 meters away from the Deepwater Horizon at first because he was still tied to it. Members of the panel appeared to be concerned that his boat had to be manually released.
Landry said he coordinated much of the first life-saving effort. Sixteen of the injured crewmembers from the rig were evacuated from his ship by helicopter.
Anthony Gervasio, the Bankston’s chief engineer, testified that he fished several people out of the water near the burning rig with a small rescue boat and the help of another Bankston crew member. Some of the survivors who made it to a life raft couldn’t get the raft loose from the burning rig. Other survivors were stuck in water that had caught fire.
“As we went over there, a life raft was lowered. We pulled three people out of the water and drove over to the life raft and tied a line onto their raft. We were proceeding to back up,” Gervasio said. “The only problem with that was the life raft was tied off to the rig. We pulled off and couldn’t go nowhere. Nobody had a knife.”
Someone found a knife and the lifeboat was cut loose.”
Landry said the captain of the Deepwater Horizon, Curt Kuchta, jumped into the water in the last minutes before the explosion.
Landry said Kuchta climbed from the 67-degree water onto the deck of the Bankston, and told Landry that the Deepwater Horizon crew had pressed the “kill switch” button to activate an emergency mechanism that would block the opening of the well, 1 mile deep in the sea.
“He acknowledged they pressed it and didn’t know if it worked or not,” Landry said.
MMS regulation requires drillers to submit proof that the blowout preventer they are using is strong enough to slice clean through a drill pipe in an emergency.
The New Orleans-based Minerals Management Service engineer who gave BP permission to drill the exploratory well under the rig said he never received confirmation from BP that the emergency mechanism at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico would be able to cut through its drill pipe to shut off the well.
Jason Matthews, an accident investigator for MMS, questioned the agency’s New Orleans District drilling engineer, Frank Patton, about his approval of BP’s drilling permit for the Deepwater Horizon.
A pair of high-pressure valves and blades called shear rams sit on the 450-ton blowout preventer at the bottom of the ocean and are supposed to be powerful enough to cut through a gushing drill pipe and close off a leaking well. All attempts to cut the Deepwater Horizon’s pipes have failed.
Patton testified that he was unaware of any such regulation, saying the BP permit application contained “no information on blind shear rams’ ability to shear the drill pipe used.”
“That’s one thing I don’t look for in my approval process. I’ve never looked for that statement there,” Patton said.
Matthews asked, “Is that just you, or is this MMS-wide?”
Patton said he wasn’t sure.
Next, MMS inspector Eric Neil testified that he went to the rig for a monthly investigation on April 1, roughly 3 weeks before the explosion. That inspection includes witnessing tests, such as one measuring well pressures.
Neal testified that MMS inspectors write their test findings into official reports only if the rig’s systems do not pass one of the tests.
A record of test results would help give an idea of what went wrong.
Neal’s father, Robert Neal, also testified. He said he had inspected the Deepwater Horizon in February and March. In his notes from February, he recorded a loss of circulation in the well, but there was no such note in March.
The panel was co-chaired by David Dykes and Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen.
Most of the discussion praised the Coast Guard for its immediate response. But news that the Coast Guard had no firefighting plan for large blazes bothered Nguyen.
The search and rescue specialist for the New Orleans District of the Coast Guard said he did not believe there was a certified fire marshal on the scene who could have coordinated efforts to contain the fire that torched the rig, causing it to sink. He testified that after the explosion vessels battled the fire overnight but that Coast Guard search and rescue teams were not equipped for such a fire and were not able to coordinate the sort of response required.
The last government employee to inspect the rig before its explosion testified that he did not collect key information that might explain why safety systems failed.
Capt. Landry’s first mate on the Bankston, Paul Erickson, said that as much as six weeks before the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, he and his crewmembers had to clear mud off the rig because of what they heard was a “loss of circulation.”
On April 20, the day of the explosion, Erickson said everything seemed to be normal. The Bankston had stopped collecting drilling mud at 5:17 p.m. and the crew went to dinner. He said they first heard about a problem with the rig a few seconds before 9:53 p.m.
Erickson said a white liquid that looked like seawater billowed out of the derrick and ignited in a flash above it.
“The liquid was coming out over the cargo and then the fire emerged over the top of the liquid, and I yelled, ‘Fire, fire, fire on the rig!’ and ran for the general alarm,” he said.
“It was a remarkable and beautiful response, really,” Erickson said.
Hearings will continue today (Wednesday) and will resume on May 28 and 29.