Safety systems worker testifies she did not immediately sound alarms on Macondo rig despite dire warnings


In the final moments before the Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20 and killed 11 men, the worker who monitored the oil rig’s safety systems said she failed to immediately sound alarms when indicator lights warned her of the highest danger.

In testimony before a federal investigative panel in Metairie on Tuesday, Andrea Fleytas said she felt the rig jolt the evening of April 20 and saw more than 10 magenta lights flash on her screen notifying her that the highest level of combustible gas had entered the rig.

She said she was trained to sound a general alarm any time more than one light flashed, but didn’t do so immediately because she had never been trained to deal with such an overwhelming number of warnings.

“It was a lot to take in,” Fleytas said, testifying by telephone from California. “There was a lot going on.”

She said she eventually “went over and hit the alarms.”

It’s unclear how long that took, but Fleytas testified that after the jolt and before the first explosion, there was time for several things to happen: Startled by the disturbance, colleague Yancy Keplinger left a rig-steering simulator and directed a closed-circuit television camera to the starboard side of the rig to find drilling mud gushing out of a diverter tube; Fleytas received a telephone call from crew on the drill floor who said they were fighting a kick of gas and oil in the well; she took another call from the engine control room asking what was happening and told them they were having a well control problem; and she continued to hit buttons on her console acknowledging the multiple gas alarms popping up in various sectors of the rig.

Only after that did the first explosion ring out, and after that Fleytas sounded the general alarm.

Rig owner Transocean had decided to make the sounding of their rigs’ general alarms a manual function, rather than letting them trigger automatically whenever a fire or gas signal registered in more than one zone. The company has said it wanted to give the bridge control over the general alarm so its rigs wouldn’t experience so many false alarms.

Also critical to protecting people in the drilling area was a system that could have cut off ignition sources once gas entered the rig. Fleytas said there was an emergency shutdown system someone could have activated to shut off ventilation to certain areas, such as the drill shack and engine room, to keep methane gas from igniting or overspeeding the engines.

But Fleytas said she knew of no protocols for activating the emergency shutdown and no one activated it. Gas likely ignited in the drilling area, killing everyone there, and also caused the two active engines to rev so high that all power on the rig was lost, preventing fire pumps from working and keeping the rig from moving away from the spewing well.

Fleytas is a dynamic positioning operator who is responsible for monitoring rig systems from the bridge and using computerized controls to keep the rig in place. At the time of the incident, the senior dynamic positioning operator, Yancy Keplinger, was helping visiting corporate officials use a video-game-style simulator.

Keplinger said in his own testimony that it was after the explosion when he first “noticed a lot of gas in there and called” the shaker house to try to get whoever may have been there out, but nobody answered the phone.

Fleytas said that Capt. Curt Kuchta, the rig’s master, was near her when the magenta lights indicated the highest possible danger of combustible gas, but she said she didn’t know if he saw them. But she said she didn’t need to consult with anyone or receive any orders to activate the general alarm when the lights went off.

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

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