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Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has ordered a brief halt to new offshore drilling permits while cleanup efforts continue along the Gulf Coast. A huge steel containment box is ready to be lowered to the sea floor. It's part of an attempt to capture the millions of barrels of oil flooding from BP's blown out well. In a moment, we'll hear about BP's safety record.
First, in the hours right after the blowout, lawyers for the rig's owner, Transocean, asked workers who had survived the blast to sign form letters about what they had seen and whether they'd been injured all of this before they'd even been allowed to see their families. Now, some of those survivors say they were coerced.
Joseph Shapiro of NPR's investigative unit explains.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO: The explosion set off a massive fire on the oil rig. Eleven men would die, more than a hundred would run to the lifeboats to save their lives.
Mr. KURT ARNOLD (Attorney): It's black. It's completely black because the power went out. And you have an explosion, so the fire is lighting the sky and you have smoke everywhere.
SHAPIRO: Kurt Arnold is a Houston attorney who represents some of the survivors. Theyre not speaking publically, but this is how Arnold says they described what happened to them and their friends on the night of April 20th in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.
Mr. ARNOLD: It's extremely gruesome. I mean, one of the guys told me as he was running out that there was guys burning and guys missing limbs. I mean, it was like a warzone.
SHAPIRO: But what's got some of the survivors angry is how the owner of the oil rig, Transocean, is now applying legal pressure to the men who escaped in those lifeboats. Lawyers for the survivors say the men were kept on the water in boats and on another rig for 15 hours or more. When they finally got to shore, they were secluded in a hotel for many more hours and they still hadn't been able to see their family, and for many, even telephone loved ones to say they were safe.
In the hotel they were questioned by company consultants and investigators and given a form to sign. Steve Gordon is another Houston lawyer who represents survivors.
Mr. STEVE GORDON (Lawyer): The form that they made them sign had: I was here when it happened. I didn't see anything, or I saw this. And I was or was not hurt.
SHAPIRO: It's a preprinted form letter. The surviving rig worker was asked to fill in his name and where he was when the evacuation occurred. Then there are the two paragraphs at the end. One says: I was not a witness to the incident requiring the evacuation and have no firsthand or personal knowledge regarding the incident. The second says: I was not injured as a result of the incident or evacuation.
The men were asked, if they agreed, to initial those statements. Documents show those initials now are being used against the survivors as they file lawsuits seeking payment for emotional distress and other claims. Attorney Steve Gordon...
Mr. GORDON: When we were hired by one of the survivors, we gave notice to Transocean's lawyers. And the immediate response was, wow, we're surprised. Here's a statement that says he's not hurt.
SHAPIRO: Gordon and attorney Kurt Arnold each have one client who have gotten these letters from Transocean in the last few days. Arnold says asking the men to sign those forms was coercive and that it only added to his client's emotional distress.
Mr. ARNOLD: Boy, I mean, you're talking about adding to post-traumatic stress, don't take them in once you get them off the rig, just keep them there for 15 hours so that they can watch their rig burning up, knowing that they had to leave some of those guys behind. I mean, come on, really? Was there any reason for that?
And the reason that they were doing that, I think, is so that they could assemble their teams onshore of investigators so that when they got to the hotel room, they could try to get these guys to sign statements and such before they'd even let them go to bed. That's what they did. Unbelievable.
SHAPIRO: NPR talked to other legal experts who said the tactic of such letters is extreme but not unheard of and that courts may question them.
Robert Anderson teaches maritime law at Pepperdine University School of Law.
Professor ROBERT ANDERSON (Maritime Law, Pepperdine University): Well, I think the court would respond very skeptically to a waiver of any type of these basic rights where the seaman was acknowledging that he or she was not injured or suffered no damages or otherwise was releasing the employer, particularly if that waiver was executed in the wake of a rescue at sea.
SHAPIRO: Transocean sent a response by email. The company says: From the beginning, our focus has been on the crew members and their families, working with all parties in the response efforts and conducting a Transocean investigation into the incident. At this time it would be inappropriate to comment on litigation.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
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