Some of those questions were answered this weekend as part of an exhaustive New York Times piece that detailed the critical, final moments of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig and her crew.
These final moments, relayed to the Times by the men who fought for their lives, paints a picture of hell on earth:
Crew members were cut down by shrapnel, hurled across rooms and buried under smoking wreckage. Some were swallowed by fireballs that raced through the oil rig's shattered interior. Dazed and battered survivors, half-naked and dripping in highly combustible gas, crawled inch by inch in pitch darkness, willing themselves to the lifeboat deck.
It was no better there.
That same explosion had ignited a firestorm that enveloped the rig's derrick. Searing heat baked the lifeboat deck. Crew members, certain they were about to be cooked alive, scrambled into enclosed lifeboats for shelter, only to find them like smoke-filled ovens.
Men admired for their toughness wept. Several said their prayers and jumped into the oily seas 60 feet below.
The sad thing is the Deepwater Horizon should not have exploded as it did when the well beneath it blew out. On paper, she was a fortress, with numerous defenses against a well blowout and the firestorm that one could create on the rig at the surface. On paper, the Times reports, she should not have become a maelstrom on the water, nor should she have claimed 11 lives.
It really can't be overstated how intensive the NYT piece—published on Christmas—really is. A full 12-pages of sworn testimony, written statements and interviews with the 21 Horizon crew members who escaped greets you in the link below. It is the most comprehensive collection of documents and evidence published thus far and it is both equally damning, saddening and maddening all at once.
The paralysis had two main sources, the examination by The Times shows. The first was a failure to train for the worst. The Horizon was like a Gulf Coast town that regularly rehearsed for Category 1 hurricanes but never contemplated the hundred-year storm. The crew members, though expert in responding to the usual range of well problems, were unprepared for a major blowout followed by explosions, fires and a total loss of power.
They were also frozen by the sheer complexity of the Horizon's defenses, and by the policies that explained when they were to be deployed. One emergency system alone was controlled by 30 buttons. (Emphasis mine)
Disasters like Deepwater are the worst. There's plenty of blame to go around, and very little in the way of "black and white" evidence that we can use to pin the tragedy on one entity, like BP, as so many people had hoped to do in the days and weeks immediately following the explosion.
BP is a villain in this case, but so too is the rig's owner, Transocean, whose safety manual was absolute and well-written, yet unable to answer a very important question: Mainly, what to do if things went wrong beyond the basic scenarios that were covered in great detail in their official safety manual?
The 12-page NYT piece begins on the morning of April 20. You owe it to yourself to read to the very end, and learn. [NYT]