Oil Spill Testimony Recalls 'Skirmish' On Rig

The chief mechanic of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig told federal investigators Wednesday about what he called a "skirmish" between a representative of BP — the oil company that leased the rig — and a manager with Transocean, the company that owned and operated the rig. The mechanic said the disagreement was about how to shut the well down. Melissa Block talks to NPR's Pam Fessler, who was at the hearing in Kenner, La.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

And we begin this hour with a dispute on the Deepwater Horizon not long before it exploded and sank to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. The oil rig's chief mechanic told federal investigators today about what he called a skirmish between a representative of BP, the oil company that leased the rig, and a manager with Transocean, the company that operated the rig. The disagreement was apparently over how to shut the well down.

NPR's Pam Fessler was at the hearing today in Kenner, Louisiana. She joins us now. And, Pam, there are a number of investigations underway into this oil spill. Explain exactly which one we're talking about here.

PAM FESSLER: This is the joint investigation that's being conducted by the Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service. That's the Interior Department agency that oversees offshore drilling. And this is an investigation that the Obama administration has called for.

BLOCK: And tell us more about this argument that they heard about today which supposedly took place on the oil rig the day of the explosion.

FESSLER: Exactly. So we heard - the witness today was Douglas Brown. He's the chief mechanic on the Deepwater Horizon. He was employed by Transocean. That's the company that operates the rig. And he said it was a routine meeting in the morning of managers of the rig and they were talking about what was going to take place. He said he wasn't didn't pay too much attention to the details. It wasn't exactly his area, but he said he did remember this.

Mr. DOUGLAS BROWN (Chief Mechanic, Deepwater Horizon): I recall a skirmish taking place between the company man, the OIM, and the tool pusher and driller concerning the events of the day. The driller was outlining what was going to be taking place, whereupon the company man stood up and said, no, we have some changes to that.

FESSLER: Now, the company man that he is talking about is the BP representative. That's the oil company that was leasing the rig. Brown said there was an argument about what to do. But the company man, quote, "stood up and said, no, we have some changes to that." And the disagreement appears to be about how to shut down the well and the process of removing some mud from the drill pipe. The indication is that BP was interested in proceeding more quickly than Transocean people were. Although we are going to hear tomorrow from two of the people who are actually more intimately involved in that discussion and we'll get a lot more information about the details.

BLOCK: Okay, and this testimony from Douglas Brown, did he go on to say what happened after that meeting where he described this - what he called a skirmish?

FESSLER: Right. Well, he gave a very dramatic accounting of what happened. He went down into the engine room and he was just going about his business and he said all of sudden he heard a loud air leak sound and then gas alarms started to go off. And he also said he heard, like, the engines were beginning to speed up, that they were revving up. He said there was an explosion that threw him up against a control panel and that a hole opened up in the floor that he fell into. And then he explains what happened next.

Mr. BROWN: I was wondering what was happening. I was confused. I was hurt and I was dazed. And I proceeded to try to get up. And the second explosion happened. And I ended up falling back down in a hole and the ceiling caved in on top of me at this point.

FESSLER: He basically described it as a chaotic situation. He says everybody was scared, some were crying and some people were even jumping overboard.

BLOCK: And he was also asked, I gather, Pam, about other issues that might have led to problems on the Deepwater Horizon that day?

FESSLER: Exactly. He said that there were some other safety devices that he felt would've worked, but they did some things that were supposed to stop the engines from speeding up and also to detect the possibility of gas seeping into the engine room. He said these things did not appear to work.

BLOCK: Okay. That's NPR's Pam Fessler reporting from Kenner, Louisiana.

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