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Technician: Deepwater Horizon warning system disabled

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The chief engineer on the Deepwater Horizon tells a government panel that warning systems on the drilling rig were inhibited because the crew did not want to be disturbed in the middle of the night.

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By David S. Hilzenrath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010; 7:33 PM

KENNER, LA. -- Long before an eruption of gas turned the Deepwater Horizon oil rig into a fireball, an alarm system designed to alert the crew and prevent combustible gases from reaching potential sources of ignition had been deliberately disabled, the former chief electronics technician on the rig testified Friday.

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Michael Williams, an ex-Marine who survived the April 20 inferno by jumping from the burning rig, told a federal panel probing the disaster that the alarm system was one of an array of critical systems that had been functioning unreliably in the run-up to the blowout.

Williams told the panel that he understood that the rig had been operating with the gas alarm system in "inhibited" mode for a year to prevent false alarms from disturbing the crew.

He said the explanation he got was that the leadership of the rig did not want crew members needlessly awakened in the middle of the night.

If the safety system was disabled, it would not have been a unique event. Records of federal enforcement actions reviewed by The Washington Post show that, in case after case, rig operators paid fines for allegedly bypassing safety systems that could impede routine operations.

Computers used to monitor and control drilling operations intermittently froze, to the point that the problem became known as "the blue screen of death," Williams said. Despite attempted repairs, the issue remained unresolved at the time of the blowout, Williams said.

Earlier in the drilling operation, one of the panels that controlled the blowout preventer -- the last line of defense against a gusher -- had been placed in bypass mode to work around a malfunction, Williams said.

Williams said a colleague told him that an inspection of the rig in the spring, shortly before the disaster, found extensive maintenance problems. The colleague said "that we were going to be in the shipyard a lot longer than anticipated because the rig was in very bad condition," Williams said.

The rig was owned by Transocean, the company that employs Williams, and was operating under contract to BP.

An attorney for BP, Richard Godfrey, added to the picture by reading from a September 2009 BP audit during his questioning of Williams. He read a litany of findings that included problems with bilge pumps, cooling pumps, an alarm system related to the rig's hospital and an emergency shutdown panel on the bridge.

A fire and alarm system was found to have its "override active," Godfrey said.

Altogether, the September audit identified 390 issues that needed addressing, Godfrey said.


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