Hearings: Questions raised about oil rig captain's actions after explosion


    By David Hammer, The Time Picayune

    This is an update from the joint hearings by the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement investigating the causes of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion on April 20.

    A statement to Coast Guard rescuers shortly after the Deepwater Horizon blew up contains explosive allegations about the way the rig’s captain handled the emergency.

    Stephen Bertone, the rig’s chief engineer, stated 26 hours after the accident that killed 11 crew members that Capt. Curt Kuchta yelled at one employee for pushing a distress button and ordered another to leave behind an injured man on a gurney, according to recitation of the previously sealed statement by BP lawyer Richard Godfrey.

    Bertone indicated in other testimony Monday that a man on the gurney was lifted into a life raft and brought to safety.

    Godfrey put the pressure on Bertone to explain his initial incident statement, even though Bertone’s lawyer advised him not to comment on it. That set off a long dispute over whether the witness would answer or if he has to invoke his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.

    It also brought objections from Transocean lawyer Ned Kohnke and Kuchta’s personal lawyer, Kyle Schonekas, who said the panel could have asked the captain about it when he testified in May and raising the criticism now didn’t afford Kuchta an opportunity to defend himself or put his decisions into context.

    Similarly, subsea engineer Chris Pleasant testified in May that Kuchta urged him to calm down shortly after the explosions and not activate an emergency disconnect system. That disconnect could have stopped the flow of gas and oil to the rig and possibly minimized the fire. The emergency disconnect system ended up not working when Pleasant later tried to activate it.

    Bertone’s testimony also showed that he never participated in any of the tests of the blowout preventer, the last-ditch safety equipment that was supposed to shut off the well, and said he was unfamiliar with updates and alterations on the BOP before the incident.

    Bertone, a Transocean employee, said it wasn’t in his area of expertise, even though the chief subsea engineers that reported to him were responsible for the equipment that failed to shut off the well after it blew.

    Godfrey, the BP lawyer, said an audit reviewed by Bertone showed that 39 jobs on Deepwater Horizon, reflecting 3,495 man-hours, were left undone during the course of the year.

    Previous testimony by Stephen Bertone

    Ronnie Penton, a lawyer representing chief electronics technician Mike Williams, a subordinate of Stephen Bertone’s, suggested that some key safety functions on board the rig were set to bypass when the accident occurred.

    First, Penton asked if the general alarm was bypassed. Bertone said he didn’t know, but testified that he didn’t recall hearing it sound when the explosions began.

    Then, Penton asked if a system for purging gaseous air from the drill shack had been bypassed for the last five years. Again, Bertone said he didn’t know and didn’t know who else would know.

    Penton said the so-called “mini-purge” system was critical for keeping gas — the same gas that ended up igniting the massive explosions onboard the rig — away from the drill floor. It appears the men on the drill floor were all killed instantaneously in the explosions.

    The third session of a Marine Board investigation into the cause of the Deepwater Horizon well blowout started with a bang Monday, as the rig’s chief engineer described a rig suffering from maintenance problems before the April 20 accident.

    Chief engineer Stephen Bertone, a Transocean employee, testified that the rig’s thruster, an underwater propeller that helps the rig move, had been “having problems” for eight months before the disaster. He also said that the driller’s chair had lost electrical power days before.

    Both pieces of information provide possible new clues about why the massive Deepwater Horizon was a “dead rig” with no engine power and failed backup generators immediately following the first explosions. The lack of power prevented the rig from disconnecting from the pipes that connected to the well nearly a mile below the sea.

    Because the rig stayed connected and continued to burn, the rig sank April 22 and resulting damage to underwater structures led to the largest oil leak in U.S. history.

    Bertone echoed earlier testimony from Capt. Curt Kuchta and subsea engineer Chris Pleasant about how attempts to engage an emergency disconnect system failed during the accident. Two engines that were active at the time of the accident oversped and shut down. And when Bertone and others tried to manually trip a backup power generator, that didn’t work either.

    Also, Bertone said he reviewed an audit before the accident that found larger maintenance issues requiring Deepwater Horizon to go to the shipyard in early 2011 for work on thrusters, engines, seawater systems, ballast systems and drilling equipment.

    Before Bertone even came to the witness table, a tense tone was set for the hearings. The panel, a joint effort of the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulations and Enforcement, declared Kuchta, the rig’s master, and Jimmy Harrell, the top drilling supervisor, parties of interest on the last day of the second round of hearings in late May.

    Lawyers for both Kuchta and Harrell made their first appearances by vociferously objecting to the panel’s adding their clients to the parties of interest, along with BP, Transocean, Halliburton and other companies involved in the well project.

    Both lawyers, Kyle Schonekas for Kuchta and Pat Fanning for Harrell, objected that their clients should have been named parties of interest from the start and were denied access to key information because of the delay.

    The panel has subpoena power, but it has been stymied in getting certain testimony at times. One witness planned for Tuesday, BP company man Robert Kaluza, previously declined to testify by invoking his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. The other top BP official on the rig, Donald Vidrine, was removed from Tuesday’s witness list without explanation. Another rig worker, Wyman Wheeler, will not show up Monday because of an illness, the panel said. Wheeler was the tool-pusher on the rig who raised some of the first questions about pressure in the well hole.

    Bertone was prevented from answering certain questions by his lawyer. When panel member Jason Mathews tried to ask Bertone whether he was ever told to leave a member of the rig crew behind during the accident, his lawyer stepped in and said there was information about that in Bertone’s witness statement, given to the Coast Guard while still at sea, 26 hours after the explosions. The lawyer said the statement spoke for itself, but Mathews said he wanted the statement on the record during these hearings because the witness statement is not a public document.

    The chairman of the panel, Capt. Hung Nguyen, stepped in and declared that absent any answers from Bertone, his statement from April 21 would be added to the public record. Nguyen also warned Bertone that when he says he doesn’t recall or doesn’t know certain answers, it could factor into their assessment of his competence. Ned Kohnke, a lawyer for Transocean, said Nguyen was intimidating the witness.



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