BP oil spill: harrowing escapes of Deepwater Horizon survivors

With hearings into the Deepwater Horizon accident ongoing in Louisiana and Washington, survivors' tales are coming out. They paint a picture of chaos and desperation after the explosion and offer hints about what might have caused the BP oil spill.

Cliff Owen/AP
Sara Stone cries as her husband Stephen Stone, a Transocean, Ltd., employee and survivor of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington Thursday about the night that led to the BP oil spill. He told the hearing that he went back into his collapsed quarters on the night of the accident for his life jacket, shoes, and wedding ring.

The first explosion was a violent concussion that threw Douglas Brown against the control panel of the Deepwater Horizon’s engine room and then down into a hole that had opened in the floor.

Mr. Brown, the engine room’s acting second engineer, heard screams and shouts as he lay stunned in debris. He tried to stand up. A second explosion caved the ceiling in on his head. He heard more screams and began to panic. A fellow worker was crawling towards him through the wreckage yelling that he was hurt and needed to find a way out.

They made it out to a lifeboat deck through an engine room hatch that had been blown open. Outside was chaos. Survivors were crying they did not want to die. The drilling derrick was completely aflame, like a giant pine engulfed by a forest fire.

IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill

“The heat from the fire was incredibly hot on my body,” wrote Brown in a statement submitted to the House Judiciary Committee.

The stories of survivors are beginning to fill in a vivid picture of the last moments of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

These eyewitness accounts may not pinpoint the cause of the rig’s disastrous demise. But as they come out, in hearings in Washington and Louisiana, they are providing some valuable hints about what might have happened.

Brown, for instance, says he heard a hissing noise, and gas alarms, before the explosion. The rig’s engines, which supplied power for all its operations, had begun to rev out of control.

Jimmy Harrell: There were no walls left

Jimmy Harrell, for his part, was in the shower. Mr. Harrell was the top drilling official on board the Deepwater Horizon, working for the rig’s owner, Transocean.

The first explosion rocked the crew quarters, Harrell told a joint Coast Guard and Interior Department hearing in Kenner, La., on Thursday. He smelled methane gas, and felt a strong back draft. About three seconds later the second explosion occurred.

Harrell’s eyes were stinging from the gas and bits of insulation that had been blown into them. There were no walls or ceilings left in the bathroom. “Everything was tore up in there,” Harrell told the joint panel in his laconic southern drawl.

He pulled on clothes and headed for the rig bridge. He could tell there was fire outside even from within the crew quarters. He reached the bridge in minutes, and he could tell immediately that fire was not the Deepwater Horizon’s only problem. The lights on the control panel were not right. They were not showing that the blowout preventer had worked.

“I expected to see the annular [blowout] preventer closed, and the diverter closed,” he told the hearing Thursday.

He still had things in his eyes, so he could not be certain.

“I didn’t have a lot of time to investigate, but it wasn’t normal,” he said.

Harrell said that in the day prior to the explosions he had spent time hosting a delegation of top BP officials who were visiting the rig to congratulate its workers on going seven years without a lost-time incident, and to discuss what would happen when the well drilling was finished.

Harrell denied that they had pressured him to complete work quickly. BP might have been paying the bills, but they did not have complete control of Deepwater Horizon operations, he said.

“We don’t just do something because the company man wants it,” said Harrell.

Still, Harrell added that in the days prior to the catastrophe BP’s plan for the cap-off of the well “kept changing”.

Stephen Stone: went back for his wedding ring

Roustabout Stephen Stone said that the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout and explosion was hardly the first thing to go wrong on the rig. He had been working on deck, helping with drilling mud, and four times in the previous twenty days they had had to stop pumping mud down into the well, and instead pump down a heavy-duty sealant to stop up cracks in the well foundation.

Mr. Stone, in a statement to the House Judiciary Committee, said he was asleep in his cabin below decks when the first explosion occurred. Disoriented, he waited a few seconds to see what was going on – and a second explosion ripped through his body and collapsed the ceiling on top of him.

Someone forced open the door to his cabin. People were running back and forth in the hall screaming that they had to get out. He struggled out the door and made for the stair to the lifeboat deck, but it had collapsed. He returned to his room to get a life jacket, shoes, and his wedding ring.

He followed a colleague to the other end of the living quarters and went up another stairway to the lifeboat deck. The air was full of smoke and grit. The light from the derrick fire was so bright it seemed like daytime. Some survivors moved towards the lifeboats. Others just stood there in shock, staring at the fire.

Stone climbed into a lifeboat.

“I was pretty certain I was going to die so I just sat there and waited for what was going to happen,” he said.

After what seemed like hours the boat was lowered. Stone made it back to land after 28 hours, and was immediately asked by Transocean to take a drug test, he said.

“Only then could I call my wife,” he said. “Thirty-one hours after the explosion I was given a hotel room and allowed to rest.”


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