By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 24, 2010; 7:14 PM
HOUSTON - A lack of proper technical gear and the inability to receive large e-mails from shore hampered the effort to shut the flow from the Macondo well in the desperate hours after the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, according to testimony Tuesday morning before a federal panel investigating the disaster.
Daun Winslow, a top Transocean manager who happened to be making a "management visibility" visit to the rig April 20, added riveting details to the narrative of the disaster.
On that day, he went from being a VIP guest to being survivor of a catastrophic explosion and then to being the person in charge of the emergency effort to fight the fire and somehow shut down the blown-out well.
His relatively high rank at Transocean - two layers of management above the senior person stationed full time on the rig - has made him a star witness for the joint investigation by the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.
The fact-finding inquiry has become a contentious legal battle involving attorneys for BP, Transocean, Halliburton, other companies and lawsuit plaintiffs. Much of the Tuesday afternoon session, for example, was taken up by a BP attorney grilling a Halliburton employee, Jesse Gagliano, about the design of the cement job on the well and Gagliano's recommendation that BP use 21 centralizers to keep the casing centered before cement was pumped. BP used only six centralizers.
The hearings have raised questions about who was in charge of various aspects of the well-drilling operation and at key moments in the emergency. One question raised by lawyers and government investigators is whether Winslow's presence on the rig created confusion about the chain of command.
Winslow's testimony called attention to the methods used to fight the fire. A lawsuit filed in federal court last month by fishermen and sidelined oil rig workers contends that the massive amount of water dumped on the rig from fireboats led to the foundering of the Deepwater Horizon on April 22 and to the subsequent oil spill.
Winslow said that on the day after the explosion, with the rig listing dramatically and the derrick already toppled, a firefighting company official on hand told him that too much water was being put on the rig. He said he passed along an order from his onshore counterparts that from that point on, water was to be used solely for cooling, with no intent to extinguish the fire.
Asked whether he had ever been told by the Coast Guard to stop dousing the rig with water, he answered, "I had no communications with the Coast Guard."
At one point, Winslow told the panel, he was unable to receive e-mail instructions from onshore colleagues because of a lack of Internet bandwidth. "The files were too large to e-mail. They were trying to break them down into smaller packages," he said.
The soft-spoken Winslow, who has worked for Transocean for 30 years, was part of a group of BP and Transocean senior managers that arrived on the afternoon of April 20 to celebrate the rig's excellent safety record. During a visit to the rig's drilling shack, Winslow heard a discussion about a pressure test on the well, which was in the final stages of being plugged and temporarily abandoned after a long and problematic drilling operation.
He said he later asked Jimmy Harrell, the top Transocean manager onboard, how the test turned out. Harrell gave him a thumbs up and said everything was fine, he said.
He was taking a cigarette break shortly before 10 p.m. when gas surged up the well and ignited. He described the explosion as the loudest noise he had ever heard. What followed was a confusing and terrifying scene. The derrick was ablaze.
The blowout preventer, the massive submerged apparatus atop the well, had failed.
Winslow evacuated the rig on a lifeboat along with dozens of other workers. He soon found himself in charge of the emergency response.
The day after the explosion he moved to a ship that had a robotic submersible. The captain maneuvered the ship close to the burning rig to be closer to the wellhead. Attempts to use it to activate valves and rams on the blowout preventer were unsuccessful. The customization of the equipment made an emergency response tricky. For instance, engineers were unable to find a grinder-type device compatible with the robotic submersible.