Deepwater Horizon captain Kuchta testifies at oil-spill inquiry

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 2010; A10

KENNER, LA. -- Speaking for the first time publicly, Deepwater Horizon Captain Curt Kuchta described a two-day period in which he went from vacationing at his home in Baltimore to jumping 75 feet into the Gulf of Mexico. He was in a life raft as an oil-fueled fire claimed the vessel under his charge, taking with it men under his command.

Kuchta, who became the Deepwater Horizon's captain in June 2008, spoke Thursday afternoon before a panel convened to investigate the disaster that left 11 men dead and is responsible for the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

He was asked to go back to that day, April 20.

Kuchta said he left Baltimore, where he had been for three weeks, on Monday, the 19th. By Tuesday afternoon he had arrived via helicopter on the vessel.

The night of the incident, he said, Kuchta was on the bridge with executives from BP and Transocean. They were using a simulator -- "Basically, to put it bluntly, it's a video game," he said -- when he noticed something was wrong:

"I saw mud in the water."

Kuchta was looking out the port-side window and ran to the other side. There was mud there, too. "It all happened so quickly . . . gas alarms," he said "A flash of some sort, which obviously set off our explosion. Fire."

Jimmy Harrell, the offshore installation manger, arrived on the bridge. Kuchta said he asked Harrell if the Emergency Disconnect System (EDS) should be activated and he gave the okay.

But it was too late. It didn't work. "I looked outside and saw the fuel to the fire wasn't slowing down. . . . Something had gone wrong," Kuchta said.

There was nothing left to do but abandon the rig. When Kuchta and others, including an injured man on a stretcher, arrived at the lifeboat station they found the boats were gone, he said.

They decided to inflate a life raft. The injured man was put on it, followed by a few other workers. It was loaded with a fraction of the people it was designed to carry when it started to go down.

"Instead of bringing it back up, I decided to jump," Kuchta said.

Once he hit the water, he said he started swimming toward the raft. At one point, it was caught and needed to be cut free.

The raft was "dark and smoky," so instead of looking for a knife on that craft, Kuchta said, he jumped again. He swam to another craft, got a knife and swam back.

Asked if the crew was pressured to speed up the drilling process, Kuchta said he wasn't aware it was behind schedule. "Again, I was gone three weeks," he said.

For some questions, Kuchta had no answer. "It's been a long five weeks," he told the panel. "Those types of questions a few weeks ago would not be a problem. But as you can imagine, it's been a difficult few weeks."

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