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.
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 the consultant, John R. Smith, an associate professor of petroleum engineering at Louisiana State University.
"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.
A lawyer for BP, Richard Godfrey, added to the picture by reading from a September 2009 BP audit during his questioning of Williams. He read a list of findings that included problems with bilge pumps, cooling pumps, an alarm system related to the rig's hospital, and a 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.
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.
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.
Staff writer Joel Achenbach contributed to this report.