Federal Investigators Hold Hearings Into Oil Spill

The U.S. Coast Guard and Minerals Management Service have begun holding oil spill hearings in New Orleans. This is the first chance federal investigators have had to get to the bottom of what happened and why.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Just outside New Orleans, federal investigators have begun their probe of the explosion.

NPR's Debbie Elliott has been covering a public hearing there and she joins us now. Debbie, who's conducting this investigation?

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: This is a joint investigation of the Minerals Management Service and the U.S. Coast Guard is basically trying to identify what went wrong, what could've prevented the loss of life and the subsequent environmental disaster that has been created by, you know, the oil that's now gushing from this well unabated.

NORRIS: So, this is the first public hearing conducted by this board. What's today's focus?

ELLIOTT: You know, the focus today has been what happened that day. They've been taking testimony from people who were on the scene on April 20th when the Deepwater Horizon exploded and caught fire. This huge cargo ship was alongside the rig. They were finished drilling this well and were taking the mud out of the pipe.

Shipmaster Alwin Landry testified. He said the ship had been put on standby that evening and he was getting a little impatient thinking they needed to finish the job. He called to find out what was going on, what the delay was. He was told something was wrong with the well. He said, then shortly thereafter, at about 10:00 that night, his crew noticed that mud was starting to come off the rig and onto his deck.

He testified he looked up, he saw this mud coming from the oil's derrick. And soon thereafter, he heard an explosion. He described seeing a green flash and that debris starting flying through the air. He then heard: Mayday, mayday, mayday, the rig's on fire, abandon ship.

He said he then saw men jumping into the water. And so he deployed the ship's -what is called the fast recovery craft. It's basically a rescue ship. And his chief mate, Anthony Gervasio, was on that rescue boat. He testified today that in the rush to get to survivors, it was kind of crazy, that explosions were still going on. Here he is.

Mr. ANTHONY GERVASIO (Chief Mate, supply vessel Damon B. Bankston): I noticed a couple more people jumping off the bridge of the rig. At that time, the water was on fire right around them and the fire was getting close to them. So at that time I looked at Louis, gave him the look, and we went in after them.

NORRIS: Sounds like very dramatic testimony today. Debbie, have you been able to tell from either the roster of people called to testify or from the line of questioning what investigators seem to be most interested in?

ELLIOTT: Well, it's been hard to tell, but one interesting item that keeps coming up is the firefighting out on that rig. And four to six boats were out there spraying water on it trying to fight the fire. Coast Guard search and rescue specialist Kevin Robb talked about how the Coast Guard in Mobile and New Orleans was simply focused on getting helicopters and boats to the scene to look for the missing workers. They were not in charge of the firefighting.

Asked who was in charge, he didn't seem to have an answer. In fact, none of the witnesses have had an answer. And the Coast Guard captain who is co-chairing this investigation asked the question, well, could it possibly be that because there was no coordinated firefighting effort, that putting water on this fire overnight and into the next day could've contributed to the rig eventually sinking to the bottom of the ocean?

NORRIS: Thank you very much, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: That was NPR's Debbie Elliott, just outside New Orleans.

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