Oil rig engineer testifies about power failures

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Months before the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon that killed 11 men, the sophisticated drilling vessel experienced power blackouts, computer glitches and a balky propulsion system, and carried a list of more than 300 deferred maintenance projects.

Under withering questioning during Monday’s resumption of the Coast Guard- Interior Department investigation into the well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, the rig’s chief engineer revealed the possibility that alarms and other crucial systems were bypassed or not functioning at the time of the explosion.

His testimony also introduced a sensational detail: As crew members scrambled onto life rafts to abandon the crippled rig, the vessel’s captain ordered an injured man to be left behind. The injured worker was eventually loaded onto a life raft and evacuated.

The day’s first witness, chief engineer Stephen Bertone, was questioned sharply by panel members from the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, who laid out a pattern of lax maintenance on the Deepwater Horizon, owned by Transocean and leased to BP.

The engineer said the rig had been experiencing mechanical failures for months before the explosion. Bertone, an employee of Transocean, said the vessel’s thruster, or propeller system, had been “having problems” for the previous eight months. In addition, the computer station where the rig’s driller sits had temporarily lost electrical power days before the blowout, he said.

Bertone said on the night of the explosion, he heard no general alarm, there were no internal communications and no power to the engines, and none of the Deepwater Horizon’s backup or emergency generators were working.

“We were a dead ship,” he said.

Because there was no power, the crew was unable to engage the emergency disconnect system that would have halted the flow of oil from the wellhead.

He said there was at least one incident earlier in the day that had foreshadowed what was to come. While taking BP and Transocean officials on a tour, Bertone saw a large group in the drill shack, an unusual number of people crammed into a small space.

“I had a feeling something wasn’t right,” Bertone said, adding that he was told to keep the tour moving and didn’t hear anything further about problems with the well.

Under questioning from BP attorney Richard Godfrey, Bertone said that the entire Deepwater Horizon rig had lost electrical power in the past. He described it as a “partial blackout,” and said rig-wide electrical failures had occurred two or three times before the explosion. He did not say how long the failures had lasted.

Panel co-chairman Jason Mathews of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement sought to portray managers of the drilling rig as having trouble keeping up with routine maintenance because of frequent employee turnover.

The Deepwater Horizon was scheduled to be sent to a shipyard for maintenance in early 2011, a point that Mathews bore in on, despite frequent objections from attorneys representing Transocean. A maintenance audit conducted by BP in September 2009 — seven months before the disaster — found 390 maintenance jobs undone, requiring more than 3,500 hours of work. The report referred to the amount of deferred work as “excessive.”

In questioning Bertone, Ronnie Penton, the attorney for the Deepwater Horizon’s chief electronics technician, implied that some of the vessel’s safety monitoring systems were regularly bypassed, including a general alarm and a device that purged trapped gas from the drilling shack. Another attorney implied that the gas-purging device, which is designed to expel any unanticipated buildup of natural gas, had not been operating for five years.

A sudden surge of natural gas from the well is believed to have caused the explosion, according to previous testimony and investigation documents.

In May, Douglas Brown, the rig’s chief mechanic, testified that he believed a sudden influx of gas onto the rig’s deck caused an engine to rev uncontrollably and touch off an explosion. A system to stop that scenario was not functional at the time, he said.

“If I would have shut down those engines, it could have stopped [them] as an ignition source,” he told the panel.

Also in Monday’s hearing, an attorney for Halliburton asked Leo Linder, a drilling fluid specialist, if gauges monitoring the drilling mud had been bypassed. Linder said he did not know.

Bertone testified to two incidents that called into question the conduct of Capt. Curt Kuchta immediately after the explosion. Bertone said Kuchta admonished a crew member for activating a distress signal. Then, as rig workers were climbing aboard a life raft, the captain gestured toward a stricken man lying on a gurney and said, “Leave him!”

The captain’s remarks were contained in a statement Bertone made to the Coast Guard in the hours after the incident, a document that has not been made public. The introduction of his statement prompted a lengthy and sometimes heated exchange among attorneys.

Times staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report from Kenner, La.