Technician for Deepwater Horizon testifies that warning system disabled

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.
By David S. Hilzenrath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010; 11:01 PM

KENNER, LA. -- Long before an eruption of gas turned the Deepwater Horizon oil rig into a fireball, an alarm system designed to automatically 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, a former Marine who survived the April 20 inferno by jumping from the burning rig, told a federal panel probing the disaster that other critical systems 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.

Williams said that when he discovered that the alarm system was inhibited, he reported it to supervisors. He said they informed him that orders were to keep it that way.

If the safety system was disabled, it would not have been unusual. 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.

The Deepwater Horizon was owned by Transocean, which employs Williams, and was operating under contract to BP.

Transocean said in a statement that the rig's general alarm system was controlled by a person on the bridge "to prevent the general alarm from sounding unnecessarily." Transocean provided statements taken from crew members saying they heard alarms, and it also released part of an April inspection report that found "no [gas] detectors either in fault or inhibited condition, other than units being serviced."

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

He 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 testified.

The Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, until recently called the Minerals Management Service, are conducting the hearing. Testimony continued before the panel Friday even as the leftovers of Tropical Storm Bonnie blew toward the spill site. Forecasters predicted that the storm, which had lessened to a tropical depression, would gain strength before it was over the site about midday Saturday.

Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said two control ships monitoring the newly capped well would try to ride out the storm. All other vessels connected to the spill effort have headed for shelter.

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