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.
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.
Williams said the fire and gas system was "a wreck" when he took over his job in 2009, and trying to improve it was a constant battle.
Every member of the Deepwater Horizon crew had the authority to stop operations if they had safety concerns. Despite his unease, Williams said he never exercised that power. In days of testimony here by a parade of witnesses, that has been a recurring theme.
Williams said that when he discovered that the alarm system was "inhibited" he reported it to supervisors, and they informed him that orders were to keep it that way.
In the event of a gas leak, the rig was equipped to shut down vents that could transmit the gas to the engine rooms, where it could ignite.
But there was no guarantee the system would work.
When it was accidentally triggered once, Williams said, the suction from the engine was so great that it pulled a fire door off its hinges.
On the night of April 20, Engine No. 3 appeared to have exploded, Williams said.
Questioned by Transocean lawyer Edward F. Kohnke IV, Williams said he has filed a lawsuit over the disaster.
Williams also said that, when he gave a statement in the presence of the Transocean lawyer before retaining a lawyer of his own and filing suit, he did not mention the problems he discussed at Friday's hearing.
Williams, who was injured in the explosion, was taken by helicopter from a rescue ship to a Louisiana hospital. Transocean lawyers interviewed him in a Kenner hotel about a day after the blowout, said his attorney, Scott R. Bickford.
Transocean said in a statement that the Deepwater Horizon's general alarm system was controlled by a person on the bridge "to prevent the general alarm from sounding unnecessarily." Transocean provided part of an April inspection report that found "no [gas] detectors either in fault or inhibited condition, other than units being serviced."
U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen, co-chairman of the investigating panel, asked if Williams's experience pointed to a systemic maintenance problem.
"There's never enough time," Williams said.
Getting replacement parts contributed to the delay, he said.
"Turnaround was horrible," Williams said. "I waited on parts for a year."
The main problem was that some parts were no longer manufactured, Williams said, and Transocean had to have them custom-made.
The Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, until recently called the Minerals Management Service, are conducting the hearing.
In other testimony Friday, an expert consultant to the investigating board said that based on available data, it appeared that the Deepwater Horizon conducted four faulty integrity tests on the well in the hours before the blowout.
The fact that the test was apparently attempted four times indicates that someone on the rig was concerned, said John R. Smith, an associate professor of petroleum engineering at Louisiana State University and a consultant to the board.
"None of the four tests were an acceptable test," Smith said.
Apparently, when BP concluded the tests, hydrocarbons were already flowing up the well, said Smith, an industry veteran.
Going on the assumption that at least one of the tests was successful, BP prepared to wrap up its work on the well by removing heavy drilling fluid from the hole. The fluid serves as a damper on the well, and removing it eliminated a counterweight to a potential gusher.