Esquire profile of 11 killed in Transocean fire delivers killer details

In the September issue of Esquire, Tom Junod has delivered a profile of the 11 men killed in the Transocean oil rig explosion and fire that led to the largest spill in U.S. history and that will end in untold ecological and economic disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf states. Junod artfully unwinds the incredibly little-known stories of the Transocean workers and little-known powerful details of the rig and its mission and terrible fate.

“The Deepwater Horizon is the second Transocean rig to drill the well known to the Minerals Management Service as Mississippi Canyon block 252, to BP as Macondo, and to the drilling team as the Well from Hell…”

Extended excerpt below.

The first rig, the Marianas, tried drilling it in the fall of 2009, until it was damaged in a hurricane and had to be repaired. The Deepwater Horizon resumed drilling in February and promptly had to “cut pipe” in March, when the drill bit got stuck and a few thousand feet of drill pipe had to be left in the hole, and the well was attacked from a different direction. The Well from Hell is as gassy as a colicky baby. Men get used to feeling “kickbacks” — the burps of methane gas that are sometimes strong enough to force the drill pipe back up the well — and to seeing the warning lights on deck that prohibit chipping and other deck work that might cause sparks and also lighting a damned cigarette. The Well from Hell has cost BP weeks of added rig time and is at least $20 million over budget. By April 20, however, drilling has been completed. All that is required is for the well to be plugged with cement and for seawater to displace the drilling mud that BP is paying M-I Swaco millions of dollars for. It is not an uncomplicated process, but once it is done, the Deepwater Horizon can move on to new holes, and a production rig can begin tapping the vast and strangely vehement reservoir of oil and gas secreted two and a half miles beneath Macondo’s wellhead.

No, it is no surprise that BP pushes for the completion of the well, nor that the push comes from one of the BP managers assigned to the rig — one of its so-called company men. It is the company man’s job to push. It is not his job to be part of the so-called Transocean family of crew members. The company man eats in the same galley as the crew members but not at the same tables. The company man does not have the same quarters as the crew members, and he does not wear the same clothes. The crew members wear Transocean-issued magenta coveralls when they’re on tour, blue coveralls when they’re off. The company man wears, in the words of one Deepwater Horizon survivor, “jeans, a BP shirt, and a nice shiny white hard hat.” There is no surprise when a company man proposes changes in certain procedures and objectives because the company man is, in another survivor’s words, “always trying to change things.” There is not even any surprise when, at a preshift meeting on April 20, the company man challenges the authority of Transocean’s [offshore installation manager or OIM]. What does surprise the crew members of Deepwater Horizon, however, is how the OIM responds.

The OIM’s name is Jimmy Wayne Harrell. The company man’s name is Robert Kaluza. The meeting is the standard “pre-tour” meeting held twice a day, at 11:00 A.M. and 11:00 P.M., before the start of each twelve-hour shift at noon and midnight. At most pre-tours, the lines of authority are clear, if contested: The BP company man tells the OIM and the driller what he wants accomplished, and the driller tells the various crews how they’re going to accomplish it. At the 11:00 A.M. meeting on April 20, however, Robert Kaluza tells the drilling team how they’re going to displace the mud from the well and replace it with seawater. When he proposes a procedure that runs counter to the procedures the drilling team has in place, Dewey Revette, the driller, fresh from his circuit around the deck, begins to argue with him. Revette thinks that what Kaluza is proposing is reckless and premature, and when the argument grows heated, what the various crew members witnessing it remember is the passion and anger of an inherently careful man. “Dewey got pretty hot,” one says. Finally, the company man invokes his own sense of authority and says, “Well, that’s how it’s going to be.” And now it is up to Jimmy Wayne Harrell. BP leases the rig, but Transocean owns it and employs the workers gathered at the pre-tour meeting. They have always understood the Transocean OIM to be the ultimate authority on the rig, the one man who has the power to override the interests of the company man in favor of the interests of the Transocean workers and their safety. And what Jimmy Wayne Harrell says, in response to Robert Kaluza’s dictum, is, according to sworn testimony offered in the Coast Guard investigation of the Deepwater Horizon disaster: “Well, I guess that’s what we have those pinchers for.”

Those pinchers: the blowout preventer.

Those pinchers: the massive mechanical shears that are supposed to cut the pipe and seal the well in the event of catastrophe.

Those pinchers: what you rely on when you’re already dead but just haven’t gotten to heaven yet.

Now, it should be understood that probably neither Jimmy Wayne Harrell nor Robert Kaluza is a bad man. Indeed, they’re probably good men, in the same way that the eleven men who died less than twelve hours after the pre-tour are good men, in the same way that most of us can claim to be good men: They probably love their families and have families that love them.

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