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

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.

Winslow said he asked one of the Transocean drillers, "You got everything under control here?"

"Yes, sir," he said the driller answered.

After visiting other sites around the rig, the executives ate dinner, then held a meeting to discuss the talking points. Winslow described it as a light-hearted gathering.

The drilling operation was more than a month behind schedule and burning through about $1 million a day. But, in their Houston testimony, BP executives gave no indication that that was a focus of their visit. O'Bryan said the Deepwater Horizon was one of BP's top performers and he wanted to learn from its success.

At 9 p.m. they went to the bridge. It was an exceedingly calm night. No wind. Using a global positioning system and a series of automatic thrusters, the rig remained almost perfectly stationary atop the well.

To see what it would be like to navigate in a storm, the executives played with software that simulated 70-mile-per-hour winds and 30-foot waves.

Winslow left, and went to the galley to get half a cup of coffee. He lit a cigarette.

It was about that moment when the rig began to shake. This was no simulation, but a violent, high-frequency vibration.

On the bridge, Capt. Curt Kuchta opened a door to look outside. The executives could see a supply boat, the Damon Bankston, anchored close by. Mud, cement, or some kind of fluid, was raining down on it.

They heard a hiss.

The first explosion, Winslow said, was the loudest noise he'd ever heard in his many years working offshore.

Then came a second.

Chaos broke out on the bridge. The captain asked the offshore installation manager, Jimmy Harrell, for permission to activate the emergency disconnect system to detach the rig from the well. These moments continue to be a focus of investigation, with officials repeatedly asking witnesses about the chain of command, with the OIM in charge when stationary but the captain in charge when the rig is underway and in certain classifications of emergencies.

Sims was asked by a federal investigator why he didn't try, himself, to activate the emergency disconnect system.

"I'm a visitor, I don't know specifically. I wouldn't know where the button, if there is a button, to push would be. I was trying to stay out of the marine crew's way and let them handle the situation," he said.

O'Bryan recalled seeing the emergency disconnect panel "light up red." Outside, he saw crew members mustering at the lifeboats.

"I remember looking at Dave and I said, 'We need to go.' "

Trahan wasn't so lucky. The explosion buried him in rubble.

"I looked to where our maintenance office had been," Transocean tool pusher Randy Ezell testified, "and all I could see was feet, a pair of feet sticking out from underneath a bunch of wreckage and debris . . . When we got the debris off of this person, we saw that it was Buddy Trahan."

Winslow, meanwhile, ran from the accommodations area and saw the derrick on fire and people screaming. He saw several people in the water far below, swimming. A man clung to a handrail, dangling over the ocean.

Winslow tried to coax him back to safer footing.

"Do you trust me?" Winslow asked.

The man answered that he didn't know Winslow.

The executives went to a lifeboat. They said they were among the last to get aboard. The captain reappeared and said there were still men on the rig and he was going with them to another lifeboat, Winslow testified.

He had to decide, at that moment, whether to leave or stay.

He had one foot on the lifeboat, one on the deck.

"I procrastinated for a minute or so," Winslow said.

Then he told the coxswain to lower the boat.

O'Bryan, a large man, said he could barely squeeze into a seat.

Sims said he found one of the last places to stand.

There were still people in the water, but Winslow saw that the Bankston had launched a rescue boat. He helped guide the lifeboat to the Bankston and then tied it off.

Of 126 people aboard, the 11 who died included 9 Transocean employees who had been working on the rig floor.

Winslow testified that he did not sleep as he, the senior Transocean official, was transformed into the leader of the emergency response. The rig burned out of control and began listing. The derrick toppled. Fire boats soaked the rig but the fire did not abate, as the well continued to shoot gas and oil onto the Deepwater Horizon.

Winslow supervised desperate attempts to shut down the well via the blowout preventer on the sea floor. He still hadn't slept when, on Thursday, nearly 48 hours after the executive management visibility trip had begun, the Deepwater Horizon sank.

Winslow spoke to the Coast Guard. Then he told a colleague, "I'm tired, I'm going to lay down for a while."

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