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John Konrad

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Fire on the Horizon

Posted: 04/19/11 10:06 AM ET

It's difficult to describe how I felt in recent weeks as three news reports all collided. Federal prosecutors announced they were considering filing manslaughter charges in the deaths of 11 crewmembers of the BP-leased drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, which was quickly followed by news that BP had applied to restart drilling operations in the Gulf, and that Transocean, owners of the Horizon, had given its top executives a huge bonus for the "best year in safety performance in our company's history."

The causes of the blowout that exploded in a ball of fire 250 feet high and killed 10 of the 11 victims instantly have been debated in thousands of hours of hearings and committee meetings. Mind-numbingly technical engineering issues have been dissected almost continuously in the nearly one year since the disaster. Immense fines have been assessed and billions in restitution have been paid or promised. Civil suits have been filed by the dozen. But the threat of criminal manslaughter charges upped the ante significantly. The threshold for manslaughter goes beyond an assessment of error or incompetence. To meet the legal definition, those responsible for the safe drilling of the well would have had to act with negligence, "without due caution and circumspection."

The thought gave me a chill of recognition.

I was not on the Deepwater Horizon rig on that day almost exactly one year ago. But I had friends who were. I myself have labored in the deepwater oil fields, and know Transocean from the inside.

In 2008, I was the chief mate of Transocean's newest megaship and holder of the world's water-depth drilling record, an oil rig called the Discoverer Deep Seas. After six years working as a chief mate, I was confident that I had something valuable to offer my ship and its crew. Within months we suffered a series of three fires, including a main engine explosion. As the person in charge of fire prevention and suppression, I concluded the incidents were caused by aging equipment and improper maintenance procedures. I lobbied the captain to push the bosses onshore for more attention to fire prevention and money for firefighting equipment and training. Fires on vessels at sea, far from assistance, can quickly become catastrophes with high loss of life. I thought it would be obvious to anyone that we had been fortunate, but our luck might not hold.

Despite my best efforts, the safety issues I raised were ignored.

I think that part of the problem was that top personnel kept getting plucked off existing vessels to man new-built rigs being rushed into service to harvest the ever more valuable oil from the deep ocean. In just the previous year, I'd served under four different top rig managers, and that drain was felt in every department, from the executive offices onshore to the drill floor. From what I saw, that left increasingly junior, less experienced officers to manage the older rigs. I couldn't help but think a more seasoned ship's master would have had a better handle on his vessel's maintenance, and in any case been confident enough to focus management's attention on potential dangers and resist the perceived pressure from "the beach" to avoid costly downtime, no matter the risk.

In May of that year, a part in the radar system burned out and poured smoke onto the ship's bridge. Men were asleep just feet below the fire, yet the general alarm was not sounded. As far as I know, no one was sent below to alert the watch if the fire spread. I was never even told. I learned of the fire in the evening watch meeting, but found that no incident report had been filed. The captain explained that there had been too many fires, and he didn't want to draw undue attention to this one, which, after all, had been safely contained. I pointed out that it wasn't a choice, but a legal requirement to report all incidents of fire. He wouldn't budge.

I went to the top authority on the rig, the offshore installation manager, and asked him to report it all to management ashore, which he did. Shore-based managers were sympathetic. They promised to investigate and sent me home with full pay so I "wouldn't be in an awkward position."

A week later, I received a call from HR: "We've done a full investigation," I was told. "Everyone was cleared. It was just smoke. There was no fire."

I pointed out what every first-grader knows: Where there is smoke, there is always fire. Moreover, "fire" is how it was reported in the boatswain's log.

Whatever it was, I was told, it was no longer my concern. I was offered a new assignment -- off the coast of Nigeria. This was a notoriously undesirable posting, a clear demotion, and I refused it.

A week later, a fire engulfed the engine room on my old rig, causing millions in damage and taking the rig out of service for months. It was astonishing that no one had been injured. When HR called the following day, I was expecting an admission that my concerns had been legitimate, an apology, and a better job offer. Instead I was told that I had to admit that I had been mistaken about the earlier fire and any other safety issues. I was told my captain was being congratulated for resolving the incident without crew injury and, although he was still new to his current position, would soon be promoted to command the company's newest, most advanced, rig.

Meanwhile, I was also told that because I had made an emergency room visit prompted by stress in the wake of my dispute with the captain, I would need medical and psychiatric clearance letters before I could return to work. The clearance letters took a couple of months to obtain. When I presented them, I was sent for more and more tests until, six months later, HR stopped returning my calls and my paychecks stopped coming. No letter ever arrived informing me of their decision, but it soon became clear that I had been "administratively discharged" for exceeding medical leave limits. My Transocean career was over.

I could have given up, or sought legal remedies, but neither course of action would have achieved what I really wanted, which was for my safety concerns to be taken seriously, and to return to another rig.

If anyone had told me ten years earlier that I would come to love life offshore, I'd have laughed. But I had discovered a reality that few understand or appreciate: the offshore oil field is a magic place where people pit technology against nature to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks. It's a place that more often than not rewards hard work, intelligence, and determination; where degrees and résumés don't matter; where even a high school diploma is not necessary to lead divisions of men and women.

So in 2009 I accepted an assignment with Pride International, a Transocean competitor, on the as yet unfinished Deep Ocean Ascension contracted to BP. Months later, on April 20, 2010, we were sailing near the Cape of Good Hope when I got word of a blowout on a Transocean rig named the Deepwater Horizon.

The Horizon wasn't just any rig to me. My Transocean career had lasted seven years.

Faces of those I knew on the Horizon flashed painfully in my mind. Mark Hay, the subsea engineer on my first rig, the Discoverer 534, had been generous sharing his knowledge with a green hand. Mike Mayfield, a capable mariner who had reported directly to me on the rig Discoverer Spirit, and had been a willing teacher to a boss two decades younger than himself. Curt Kuchta, a friend with whom I had risen through the Transocean ranks, was the Horizon's captain.

And Dave Young. Dave Young, the Horizon's chief mate, was one of my closest friends. We'd met in 1996 as second-year students at SUNY Maritime. We'd sailed the world together in the academy's training ship. We'd stayed close through the years as we both married and started families. In fact, I was the reason Dave was on the Horizon -- for years I'd invited him to come to work in the oil field. I was still with Transocean in 2007 when he finally agreed to apply, and I'd pulled whatever strings I had to help get him in the door.

I kept looking at the picture of the all-consuming fire, still raging, I knew, five thousand miles away to the west and north. It would be many hours until I discovered that all these friends had survived the inferno, but that 11 others had not.

The investigations into the Horizon's demise have all pointed toward the corrupting influence of the same forces I experienced first hand -- a willingness to avoid slowing or stopping the race for oil by ignoring or downplaying risk, and to suppress those who raise voices of caution.

I can only hope that the true lessons of April 20, 2010 will be learned before they are already forgotten.

John Konrad the co-author, along with Tom Shroder, of Fire on the Horizon, published by HarperCollins this past March. He is a veteran oil rig captain and a former employee of the Deepwater Horizon's owner, Transocean, and the founder of the world's leading maritime blog, gcaptain.com. A graduate of SUNY Maritime College, he lives in Morro Bay, California.