Chilling Details of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster


Eight months in, when most of our attention is focused on the troubled claims process, the New York Times is offering a detailed – and sometimes graphic – report about what happened in the final hours of the Deepwater Horizon. It is a report notable for both its content and tone, at times taking a literary approach.

My friends in the media no doubt call this a “tick-tock” story. The name comes from the report’s reliance on details and timelines.

Clearly this is an insightful story about what exactly happened – when and why – with workers “… willing themselves to the lifeboat deck.” The NYT reporters (three bylines) are comfortable saying the Deepwater crew “… shared something else – a clear-eyed realization that they held one of the last great blue-collar jobs, where someone with a high school diploma could easily make six figures a year.”

Other things shared, according to the NYT insight, included: “They knew one another’s moods and quirks.”

But where others have mostly seen a culture adverse to safety, in this report we learn that a silver watch was given as a reward for a good inspection and a sign of safety first. Says the story of the award: “The gesture was typical of the potent safety culture on the Horizon, where before every job, no matter how routine, crew member were required to write out a plan identifying all poential hazards.”

Much later, we find that the safety culture may have been a bit lax on larger items, because “… evidence is mounting, however, that the blowout preventer maybe have been crippled by poor maintenance.”

And, oh yes, the emergency disconnect system also failed.

How could one manager tell when the “company men” were getting on another guy’s nerves? Well, the Times tells us, “… he would rub his head a certain way. This happened a lot on the Macondo job.”

The literary approach is interesting in that it does help bring the eight-month-old story to life, I suppose, for those who have moved on. It’s hard to know for those of us still living it every day.

This is the kind of comprehensive story that we’ve come to expect from the New York Times, and I’m sure many lawyers are reading it for the fine details that could shine more light on a range of legal strategies. And, of course, the newspaper draws its conclusions and insights from thousands of documents, including testimony and extensive interviews.

“The result,” says the report, “the interviews and records show, was paralysis… [from] two main sources.” One, it says, was a failure to train for worst-case situations and the second was the sheer complexity of the Deepwater Horizon defenses, including policies covering when they could be engaged. Granted, you could argue that’s really the same issue, but you get the picture.

As for the safety stuff, it’s really “cover your ass” industrial protocol: Create detailed safety-first policies and then make sure they’re largely ignored when they clash with production and profits. As the term implies, nobody documents “unwritten rules” – and, to be fair, those who know the situation best always stress that workers generally know where to draw the line between the formal and informal safety practices…EXCEPT, as this NYT report vividly points out, when they don’t.

Once again, we have required reading from the NYT, although I wonder how the graphic nature of the piece will play in the Gulf. But certainly it sets a new tone for reporting on the disaster. And, thankfully, it keeps us on the front page and, hopefully, in the front of people’s minds.

The NYT story is here:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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