Deepwater Horizon chief engineer testifies in new round of hearings

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
By David S. Hilzenrath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2010; 5:25 PM

KENNER, LA. -- A new round of hearings into the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig opened Monday with members of a government panel pressing the chief engineer to expand on an earlier statement describing the chaotic final moments on the burning rig.

In that statement, which has not been made public, Stephen Bertone said that the captain of the rig screamed at a crew member for pressing either a distress button or a disconnect button, and, referring to an injured man on a stretcher, said, "Leave him."

But at Monday's session of the joint U.S. Coast Guard and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, he would not go over it again. "I honestly don't feel anything in that statement needs to be changed," Bertone said, and his lawyer, Stephen D. London, fiercely resisted efforts to get him to describe the scene anew.

The skirmish was the first of what will likely be several tests for the government panel, which is trying to bore in on the decisions made in the hours and days before the rig blowout. Two key BP officials who had been scheduled to testify this week canceled for medical reasons, including Donald Vidrine, one of the so-called company men who represented BP on the rig.

Before Bertone was done testifying, lawyers for Transocean and other members of the rig crew argued over what questions were appropriate and whether panel members were trying to intimidate the Transocean engineer.

Although Bertone's April statement to the Coast Guard was not part of the public record, snippets of his statement were offered by a member of the panel and lawyers for other parties.

A lawyer for Captain Curt Kuchta protested that introducing the information was "an attempt to assassinate his character." A lawyer for Transocean, the company that owned the rig, criticized the investigating panel for not asking Kuchta about the account when he appeared at an earlier hearing.

Panel co-chairman Hung M. Nguyen of the Coast Guard said that the only way Bertone could avoid answering questions from the panel was to invoke his right against self-incrimination. Nonetheless, the panel permitted Bertone to leave the witness table after about four hours of testimony without explicitly invoking the Fifth Amendment or elaborating on the matters his lawyer said he would not discuss.

Bertone testified that a variety of maintenance problems afflicted the Deepwater Horizon in the months before it exploded and sank, killing 11 rig workers and triggering a catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

A BP audit of the rig in September found 390 maintenance issues that had not been resolved, BP lawyer Richard Godfrey said during his turn questioning Bertone. Godfrey said that the auditors estimated that it would take 3,545 man-hours to address those problems, Godfrey said.

Bertone acknowledged that a lot of preventive maintenance items were not addressed in the allotted time. However, he said many of the items listed in the September audit were not relevant to the Deepwater Horizon and were based on a new maintenance program that was not tailored to the rig.

Bertone testified that the computer on a chair used by the rig's driller had been malfunctioning and that its hard drive had been replaced. When the computer froze, it rendered the driller blind to conditions in the well unless he switched chairs.

In addition, one of the rig's thrusters had been having problems for eight months, Bertone said.

Asked by one of the panelists if any alarms on the rig had been bypassed, including one meant to detect a buildup of potentially flammable gases, Bertone said he did not know.

The rig had repeatedly experienced partial blackouts, Bertone said.

The rig was scheduled to head to a shipyard in 2011 for maintenance, including work on its drilling equipment, Bertone said.

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