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First draft of history.

June 19, 2010, 6:19 am

An excellent chronicle by Sean Flynn in the July GQ of the events on and around the Deepwater Horizon just before and just after the explosion. I’ve put some excerpts below the fold but the whole thing is worth reading.

By eleven o’clock, when the daily safety meeting begins, the cement has been curing for more than eleven hours. Mike Williams listens as the managers and supervisors outline their plans for the next twelve hours. Then it gets tense. Jimmy Wayne Harrell, Transocean’s OIM—offshore installation manager—goes last, like he always does. Mike finds it strange that Jimmy is using more technical language than usual when he’s talking about sealing the well.

“Jimmy,” the man sitting next to Mike says, “my procedure is different than that.”

Mike recognizes BP’s senior man on the Horizon.

“This is how we’re gonna do it,” the OIM says, “unless I hear different.”

The BP man says: “I’m the company man. And you’re hearing it from me.”

The two senior guys on the rig arguing about how a vessel with 126 crew on board is going to safely disconnect from a punctured reservoir of explosive hydrocarbons…yeah, tense is the right word….

The Dolphin, the first one in the air for the rescue, takes off at 10:28. It climbs to 700 feet, half the height of the Empire State Building. Murray and Hickey drop their NVGs—nightvision goggles—and they see a glow on the southern horizon, like a setting sun.

“Is that it?” Peterson hears them mutter. “Holy shit, I think that’s it.”

The Deepwater Horizon is 145 miles away….

A small armada of oil skimmers and service boats are puttering about the Gulf of Mexico, attending to what is, officially, a minor ecological untidiness. The wounded Macondo well supposedly is trickling a mere thousand barrels of crude into the sea every day.

That is a ridiculous number, and an obviously ridiculous one, albeit less ridiculous than the one announced four days ago, which was zero. “The blowout preventer,” Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry announced at a press briefing on Friday, April 23, “appears to be working.”

It is important to note that Admiral Landry was not obfuscating. Rather, she—indeed, everyone—was relying on BP for information. The BOP is under a mile of water, in a dark and murky place that can be seen only by remotely controlled submersibles, which the Coast Guard neither owns nor operates. Visibility is so poor and the water so deep, in fact, that it required two days of searching to locate the capsized wreckage of the Horizon, which had burned for thirty-six hours before toppling into the waves.

The Friday briefing was not, primarily, about the potential environmental impact but was instead to announce that the Coast Guard was suspending its search for Shane Roshto and the other ten missing men. After twenty-eight sorties by plane and boat and helicopter covering a swath of ocean the size of Connecticut, “we have reached the point,” Landry said, “where the reasonable expectation of survival has passed.”

So that left the oil, or the threat of the oil. By Tuesday, a week after the explosion, when the BOP has clearly failed and the well is purportedly leaking only 1,000 barrels a day, crude the color of dime-store chocolate streaks miles of the surface in long, ragged ribbons. Approaching from the north, even a mile out, before the stink begins to sting the eyes, the water is divided by a stark and clearly defined line, a border of oil.

Given the undeniable silliness of its initial estimate, BP soon quintuples it to 5,000 barrels a day, another egregious lowball that for weeks will be repeated religiously by reporters, a fragment of boilerplate—210,000 gallons a day—in daily news reports.

Meanwhile, other scientists—oceanographers, environmentalists, an assortment of professionals who share no culpability in having punctured a hemorrhaging wound in the earth’s surface—calculate much higher figures based on satellite imagery and a basic understanding of how the ocean functions. Oil bleeding out of a hole a mile down, for instance, will get swept into sub-sea currents and dragged Lord knows where; deep-sea pressure will make it heavier, less likely to rise; thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants, a toxin in their own right, break the crude into droplets that linger at staggering depths. In mid-May scientists will discover plumes of oil, miles long and miles wide, spreading at 4,300 and 2,600 feet below the surface.

BP, for its part, maintains that measuring the flow more precisely isn’t possible (not true, but whatever), and in any case, what’s the point? If it can’t clean up 5,000 barrels a day, BP seems to be saying, what difference does it make if Macondo is spewing 70,000? To BP, for right now, it makes no difference at all, except that 5,000 isn’t nearly so catastrophic a number. BP can’t unwreck the ocean, and the damage, environmental and economic ruin on a heretofore unimaginable scale, will become apparent in time, when the lawyers and public-relations people are better equipped to deal with it….

Claude unlatches every trap he brings up, holds it over the side of Johnny’s paint-speckled skiff, and dumps the crabs into the water, then gives the trap a firm shake to jostle out the cranky ones with a claw clamped on the mesh. Johnny doesn’t count how many dollars are going overboard, because, really, why bother with the heartache? As far as the state of Louisiana is concerned, those crabs are worthless, because this particular patch of crabbing ground has been closed. The heavy oil hasn’t washed into the marsh yet, but the stink is heavy at Point Chico and Johnny’s already seen a couple of dead dolphins and a shitload of dead catfish. Crabs are scavengers, feeding at the low end of the food chain, and between the dispersants and the oil, no one can say for certain what toxin has got into what tiny creatures.

His oyster leases are closed, too. Nine days of dragging and then nothing, his rich fishing grounds gone in a flash. In the weeks to come, the state will open some of his leases, but who knows for how long? Already the shrimp season has opened twice, weeks earlier than it usually does and only to get ahead of the oil just over the horizon, and both times it was closed again within twenty-four hours.

“It’s gonna be bad,” Johnny says, taking a pull off his Bud Light. “I hate to say it, but I think we’re out of business. What am I gonna do now?” What he’s going to do now is pack up his gear, his oyster rakes and his crab traps and his rigging, and put them in storage and hope they don’t rot before he can get them back in the water. And then maybe he’ll go to work for BP, like Claude and his brothers, Earl and Mitchell, laying containment boom. He’s got a family to feed, and the BP money’s not bad. Not fishing money, but decent….

When Natalie’s suit was first reported, anonymous people logged on to the Internet and typed awful things about her. People who had never met her, who had never heard of Shane an hour before, who had never worked on an oil rig or been widowed by a corporate fuckup in the middle of the ocean, called her greedy and heartless, accused her of cashing in on her husband and her little boy’s dead daddy. Natalie read some of those anonymous comments, then shut down her computer. They have it all wrong. It wouldn’t matter if she was looking for a lottery ticket, anyway: Under the federal laws that cover people who die on the high seas, she’s eligible for not much more than a portion of Shane’s lifetime earnings. She has her own reasons for suing, and those aren’t greedy at all.

“Shane always told me, ‘If anything ever happens to me out there, you better fight till you’re blue in the face,’” she says. Because if something ever happened to Shane, that meant something went wrong—something that shouldn’t have gone wrong and shouldn’t go wrong again—and usually it takes a judge and a jury to get that point across with any authority. “I want to be able to sit down with Blaine twenty years from now and tell him something really bad happened one night,” she says, “but here are all the good things that came out of it. Here are the safety rules that changed, here are the regulations that changed.”

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