In testimony, executives relive actions on night of Deepwater Horizon explosion

BP, the government and an army of volunteers are fighting to contain and clean the millions of gallons of oil spewing from the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.
By Joel Achenbach and David Hilzenrath
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 29, 2010; 11:37 PM

HOUSTON- Before BP executives flew to the Deepwater Horizon one Tuesday afternoon in April, they went over some talking points. They wanted to address the need to avoid hand and finger injuries from dropped objects. They would warn of hazards such as "Slips, Trips, Falls." And their talking points would also highlight the Horizon's "hallmarks," including:

"No blame, 'can do' culture - fix the problem, learn, move on"

"Prudent risk-taking - freedom to fail, no fear of second guessing."

It all became bitterly ironic a little more than seven hours after the executives landed on the rig's helipad, when something went disasterously wrong and the Deepwater Horizon exploded.

Three of the executives testified here last week before a joint investigation of the U.S. Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, providing for the first time details of one of the Horizon's most intriguing subplots. They were repeatedly questioned about what they knew and when they knew it.

They insisted that they had stayed out of the way, caused no distraction, and distanced themselves from key technical decisions. In doing so, the executives have contended that, despite many collective decades of experience in the offshore-drilling business, they failed to detect the ominous signals of a "well control" problem, and had no clue that they were aboard what amounted to a ticking time bomb.

David Sims, the BP executive who wrote the talking points, and his boss's boss, Pat O'Bryan, were part of the group of VIP visitors on April 20. Also on board the helicopter flight were Daun Winslow and Buddy Trahan, top executives for Transocean, the rig's owner.

O'Bryan called the VIP trip a "leadership" visit. Winslow called it a "management visibility" exercise. They weren't going to involve themselves, they said, in any technical operations. They were there primarily to be seen by the rank and file.

"I tried not to, try not to, be a distraction. I don't go with big agendas when I go on these visits," O'Bryan testified.

The executives arrived at 2:30 p.m., signed in, and listened to a one-hour safety briefing. They were given hard hats, gloves and ear plugs. Each executive received a card assigning him to a lifeboat in the unlikely event of an emergency evacuation.

The BP well-site leader, or "company man," in charge that afternoon was Robert Kaluza, who had been on the rig just four days. A second company man, Donald Vidrine, relieved Kaluza for the evening. Neither has testified: Kaluza has invoked his 5th amendment rights and Vidrine has cited medical issues.

The executives did get a hint that something wasn't going precisely according to plan that afternoon. A pressure test on the well had given an unsatisfactory result, and a second test had to be conducted. While visiting the drilling floor, some of the executives heard a discussion about the tests. Winslow testified that he suggested that they leave so the workers could sort out the thorny issue.

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