How An Oil Spill Spread Into A National Crisis More than two weeks have passed since an oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people and touching off a major environmental disaster. The story, which began far from land, now stretches along the Gulf Coast and all the way to Washington. Here, a detailed look at the crisis as it unfolded.
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How An Oil Spill Spread Into A National Crisis

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How An Oil Spill Spread Into A National Crisis

How An Oil Spill Spread Into A National Crisis

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The weather has improved in the Gulf of Mexico, helping oil cleanup crews working there. But those crews are no match for a massive spill that continues to bubble up unchecked from a deep sea well, more than two weeks after a drilling rig exploded. We asked two NPR reporters, Debbie Elliott and Scott Horsley, to reconstruct what happened on the Gulf Coast and in Washington, D.C. We start with Debbie in Orange Beach, Alabama.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: It began in the dark of night when an explosion rocked the offshore drilling rig, the Deepwater Horizon, at 10 PM on Tuesday, April 20.

Unidentified Man: Taking up slack, slowly. We can't take the load. Okay, we're taking the load. Survivors clear...

ELLIOTT: Coast Guard helicopters and boats plucked 115 survivors from the Gulf, but the frantic search for 11 missing men continues as the rig burns through the night and into the next day. Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officer, Mike O'Berry.

Mr. MIKE O'BERRY (Senior Chief Petty Officer, Coast Guard): It is a very dramatic fire, big plumes of fire smoke you can actually see it from satellite imagery.

ELLIOTT: On Thursday, there's a second explosion and the Deepwater Horizon starts its plunge, nearly a mile to the ocean floor. The Coast Guard and BP said, which lease the rig, say they're preparing for a worst-case scenario. But they also say they don't believe any oil is leaking.

SCOTT HORSLEY: In Washington, I'm Scott Horsley.

When news of the explosion reaches the White House Tuesday night, President Obama has just returned from a West Coast fundraising trip. He's preparing to meet the next day with Senate leaders to discuss his next Supreme Court pick, and the following day, he heads to New York for a major speech on financial regulation.

On the way there, press secretary Robert Gibbs says he doesn't believe the president has spoken to anyone about the burning oil rig. By that afternoon the rig has sunk, and Mr. Obama huddles in the Oval Office with his Homeland Security and Interior secretaries, as well as the Commandant of the Coast Guard. Later, he steps outside to the Rose Garden to mark the 40th anniversary of Earth Day.

President BARACK OBAMA: And in the four decades since, millions of Americans have heeded that call and joined together to protect the planet.

HORSLEY: The president talks about his own efforts to pass a comprehensive energy and climate bill. It was in that context he'd called for an expansion of offshore oil drilling, confident the danger could be managed. Here he is, just over a month ago.

Pres. OBAMA: It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced. Even during Katrina, the spills didn't come from the oil rigs. They came from the refineries on shore.

HORSLEY: The day after the rig sinks, Gibbs is asked if the president is rethinking his drilling proposal. He relays the latest White House information was that no oil is leaking from the underwater well. With that assurance, Mr. Obama leaves Washington for a short vacation in North Carolina.

ELLIOTT: That weekend we learned the well is leaking. That advanced technology President Obama spoke about didn't work. A device called a blowout preventer failed to clamp off the flow of oil as it was designed to do.

BP deploys remote-controlled submarines to try to fix it. Two leaks are now spewing oil at an estimated rate of about 1,000 barrels a day, creating an oil slick bigger than Rhode Island. Gulf Coast states take notice. The distant accident offshore is now a floating menace.

BP's Chief Operating Officer, Doug Suttles, says the company is doing everything it can, but adds a leak this deep is unprecedented.

Mr. DOUG SUTTLES (Chief Operating Officer, BP): These are activities that have never been accomplished before but have been used in shallower waters. And we have the world's best experts working on this, 24 hours a day

ELLIOTT: BP prepares to drill a relief well, which will take months, and starts building a structure to capture the oil on the ocean floor. On the surface, the Coast Guard deploys booms, skimmers and chemical dispersants to clean up the pollution.

Late Wednesday night, just over a week since the explosion, the picture gets worse: there's a third breach. U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral, Mary Landry.

Ms. MARY LANDRY (Rear Admiral, U.S. Coast Guard): While BP believes and we believe and established a thousand barrel-per-day estimate of what is leaking from the well, NOAA experts believe the outlook can be as much as 5,000 barrels.

HORSLEY: President Obama is briefed about the worsening oil spill that night as he flies home from the Midwest - a trip devoted to clean energy. By the following morning, the administration is in full damage-control mode.

Mr. GIBBS: So, let me start with a few words of the president's involvement. The president's been actively following the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, receiving multiple updates.

White House Spokesman Gibbs is surrounded by a cast of Cabinet secretaries. By this time, the government's tone shows growing impatient with BP and its failed efforts to stop the leak. When Coast Guard Rear Admiral Sally Brice O'Hara refers to the oil company as the government's partner, she quickly corrects herself.

Ms. SALLY BRICE O'HARA (Rear Admiral, Coast Guard): Bad choice of words - our responsible party.

HORSLEY: The government still depends on BP to carry out the most important task of somehow shutting off the gusher. But a week after the rig's collapse, the spill is declared nationally significant, allowing more federal resources to come pouring in.

(Soundbite of bell)

ELLIOTT: At Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Coast Guard cutters prepare to go out skimming oil. From Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle, containment booms are going up around sensitive beaches and coastal marshes, only to be knocked loose by rough seas that also hamper the cleanup offshore.

Concern grows for what will happen to wildlife, fisheries and commerce all along the Gulf Coast.

Community groups in Mobile, ask who's in charge. Leevones Dubose, with the Bay Area Women's Coalition.

Ms. LEEVONES DUBOSE (Bay Area Women's Coalition): We're very concerned, and we're kind of anxious. Today is Friday. It's payday. People usually have fun on Friday, and now we're sitting here as if we're waiting on a tragedy.

ELLIOTT: Zack Carter, with South Bays Community Alliance, says people here were just starting to come back after Hurricane Katrina.

Mr. ZACK CARTER (South Bays Community Alliance): And now we're faced with this other pending disaster. We are asking that the federal government give us a full response this time.

HORSLEY: The White House begins issuing daily summaries of the government's response, filled with adjectives like relentless, coordinated and all hands on deck. On Sunday, President Obama makes a hastily arranged visit to Venice, Louisiana. Standing in a steady rain, the president promises to do whatever it takes to restore the region's rich and fragile ecosystem.

Pres. OBAMA: This is also the heartbeat of the region's economic life. And we're going to do everything in our power to protect our natural resources, compensate those who have been harmed, rebuild what has been damaged, and help this region persevere like it has done so many times before.

(Soundbite of birds squawking)

ELLIOTT: Fourth-generation commercial fisherman, Paul Nelson, says this isn't about pulling yourself up by the bootstraps to rebuild after a natural disaster. Looking out over the marshes in Coden, Alabama, he worries the oil spill could be the end of his family's way of life.

Mr. PAUL NELSON (Commercial Fisherman): I see something that can't be replaced. I see something there that we sure don't need destroyed, that's for sure.

HORSLEY: Nothing's really sure for now. BP executives warned Congress Tuesday, if efforts to cap the well fail, it could gush eight times as much oil as it is now.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

ELLIOTT: And I'm Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Orange Beach, Alabama.

(Soundbite of music)

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