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How An Oil Spill Spread Into A National Crisis

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig is seen burning in this April 21 file photo taken in the Gulf of Mexico.
Gerald Herbert
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig is seen burning in this April 21 file photo taken in the Gulf of Mexico.

More than two weeks have passed since an oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people and touching off a major environmental disaster. The story, which began far from land, now stretches along the Gulf Coast and all the way to Washington. Here, a detailed look at the crisis as it unfolded:

The First Days

It began in the dark of night when an explosion rocked the offshore drilling rig the Deepwater Horizon at 10 p.m. on Tuesday, April 20.

Coast Guard helicopters and boats were deployed to pluck survivors from the Gulf. They rescued 115 workers and then continued a frantic search for 11 missing men as the rig burned through the night and into the next day.

"It is a very dramatic fire, and you can see it's, you know, big plumes of fire smoke. You can actually see it from satellite imagery," Senior Chief Petty Officer Mike O'Berry said at the time.

The next day, the burning rig was toppling.

The rig — which is owned by the offshore drilling contractor Transocean but is leased to BP, which owns the mineral rights to the oil below — was not pumping oil when the accident happened, said Transocean Vice President Adrian Rose.

"The operation on the rig immediately prior to the incident was running and cementing a production casing. This was conducted according to plan with appropriate testing completed and with no indication of any problems," Rose said.

On Thursday, April 22, there was a second explosion and the Deepwater Horizon started its plunge nearly a mile to the ocean floor. The Coast Guard and BP said they were preparing for a worst-case scenario but didn't believe any oil was leaking.

Some 50 miles away in southern Louisiana, there was an outpouring of support for the families of the missing workers — but little expectation of the nightmare to come.

Meanwhile, In Washington

To hear President Obama and his aides tell it, the administration instantly grasped the severity of what had happened.

"I want to emphasize, from Day 1, we have prepared and planned for the worst," Obama said.

But given the crush of other White House business, there's little sign the administration grasped — at least initially — just how serious this accident would become.

On the night the rig exploded, the president had just returned from a West Coast fundraising trip. He was preparing to meet the next day with Senate leaders to discuss his next Supreme Court pick, and the following day, he headed to New York for a major speech on financial regulation.

On the way to New York, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked if the president had spoken to anyone about the burning oil rig. Gibbs said he didn't think so.

By the time the president returned from New York, though, the rig had sunk. And White House involvement increased sharply.

Obama huddled in the Oval Office with his Homeland Security and Interior secretaries, as well as Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen. The president ordered government agencies to put a priority on search and rescue, and on environmental cleanup. Afterward, he stepped outside into the Rose Garden for a reception marking the 40th anniversary of Earth Day.

The president discussed his own efforts to pass a comprehensive energy and climate bill. As part of that effort, he had proposed an expansion of offshore oil drilling just a month earlier.

"It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills," Obama had said on April 2. "They are technologically very advanced. Even during Katrina, the spills didn't come from the oil rigs. They came from the refineries on shore."

That confidence may have bred complacency in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon's sinking. Asked on Friday, April 23, if the president was rethinking his drilling proposal, Gibbs said the latest White House information was that no oil was leaking from the underwater well. With that assurance, the president left Washington for a short vacation in North Carolina.

Another Breach

That weekend, it turns out, the well did leak. That advanced technology Obama spoke about had malfunctioned. A device called a blowout preventer failed to clamp off the flow of oil like it was designed to do in just such an accident.

BP deployed remote-controlled submarines to try to fix it. Two leaks in the riser pipe that once connected the rig to the wellhead spewed oil into the Gulf of Mexico at an estimated rate of about 1,000 barrels a day and created an oil slick bigger than Rhode Island. Gulf Coast states took notice. The distant accident offshore began to be a floating menace taking aim at fragile coastline.

On April 30, BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said the company was doing everything it could to try to stop the flow, but added that the leak, more than 5,000 feet deep in the Gulf, was unprecedented.

"These are activities that have never been accomplished before but have been used in shallower waters. And we have the world's best experts working on this 24 hours a day," Suttles said.

A boat with an oil boom tries to contain the spill, approximately 7 miles from where the oil rig sank last week.
Gerald Herbert
A boat with an oil boom tries to contain the spill, approximately 7 miles from where the oil rig sank last week.

BP prepared to drill a relief well, which will take months, and started building a structure to capture the oil below the surface.

On the surface, the Coast Guard deployed booms, skimming vessels and chemical dispersants to clean up the pollution.

"It is important to understand that our overarching goal remains to secure the well, fight this oil spill as far offshore as possible, and to mitigate the environmental and economic impact until such time as this incident no longer poses a threat," said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, who was overseeing the response.

She said BP and the government were "forward-leaning." But increasingly, it appeared, they couldn't stay in front of the gusher. In the first few days of the cleanup, crews recovered just over 43,000 gallons of an oil-water mix from the surface. The well was releasing that much oil every day.

"BP has just briefed me of a new location of an additional breach in the riser of the deep underwater well. While BP believes and we believed and established a 1,000 barrel-per-day estimate in what is leaking from the well, NOAA believes the outlook could be as much as 5,000 barrels," Landry said.

Obama was briefed about the worsening oil spill on Wednesday night as he flew home from a two-day trip to the Midwest devoted to clean energy. By the following morning, the administration was in full damage-control mode — in the Gulf and in the White House briefing room.

"Let me start with a few words of the president's involvement. The president has been actively following the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, receiving multiple updates, and consulting on the response since the incident occurred," Gibbs said.

Gibbs was surrounded by the Homeland Security secretary, the EPA administrator, and the president's energy czar. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was in Houston, where BP has its command center. By that time, the government had grown increasingly impatient with BP and its failed efforts to stop the leak. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Sally Brice O'Hara referred to the oil company as the government's "partner," then quickly corrected herself.

The company had gone from a chummy "good spiller" to a more legalistic "responsible party." The government was depending on BP to carry out the most important task of somehow shutting down the well. But as the spill was declared "nationally significant," more and more federal resources came pouring in.

Skimming The Oil

On May 3 at Naval Air Station Pensacola, the Coast Guard cutter Oak prepared to deploy with its Charleston, S.C.-based crew to an area close to the Deepwater Horizon accident site — on a mission to collect spilled oil.

"The type of oil-skimming gear we have is called a weir skimmer," said Capt. Michael Glander. "If you can imagine a deep, dish-shaped object about the size of a truck tire, it sits on the surface of the water, and like a weir or a dam it allows the very top surface of the water, the oil or the oily water mixture to fall inside."

BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward said the company has "made it clear that where legitimate claims are made, we will be good for them" when asked whether BP was prepared to pay claims to individuals who have lost livelihoods owing to the spill.
John D. McHugh
AFP/Getty Images
BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward said the company has "made it clear that where legitimate claims are made, we will be good for them" when asked whether BP was prepared to pay claims to individuals who have lost livelihoods owing to the spill.

This was the first time the crew had to use its oil-spill recovery equipment. From Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle, containment booms went up around sensitive beaches and coastal marshes, only to be knocked loose by rough seas that also hampered the cleanup offshore.

Meanwhile, the growing oil slick moved closer to shore. Some of the sheen began washing up in southeast Louisiana's wetlands. Concern over what would happen to wildlife, fisheries and commerce all along the Gulf Coast grew.

A coalition of community groups spoke out before the weekend in Mobile, asking who was in charge.

"We're very concerned, and we're kind of anxious," said Leevones Dubose of the Bay Area Women Coalition. "Today is Friday. It's payday. People usually have fun on Friday, and now we're sitting here as if we're waiting on a tragedy."

Zack Carter with the South Bays Community Alliance said people were just starting to come back after Hurricane Katrina.

"And now we're faced with this other pending disaster. We are asking that the federal government give us a full response this time," Carter said.

Many expressed a growing frustration that BP and the government had not been aggressive enough in trying to contain the spill at sea.

"We're certainly urging the federal government and BP to deploy more sources to help mitigate the impact of the oil spill that's affecting the coast of our state," said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Fending off media comparisons to a Katrina-style disaster, the White House began issuing daily summaries of the government's response, filled with adjectives like "relentless," "coordinated" and "all-hands-on-deck."

On Sunday, President Obama himself made a hastily arranged visit to the Gulf.

With the presidential helicopter grounded by bad weather, Obama drove two hours from New Orleans to Venice, La., where he met with Coast Guard and parish officials.

Standing in a steady rain, the president promised to do whatever it takes to restore the region's rich and fragile ecosystem.

"This is also the heartbeat of the region's economic life," Obama said. "And we're going to do everything in our power to protect our natural resources, compensate those who have been harmed, rebuild what has been damaged, and help this region persevere like it has done so many times before."

A Way Of Life

But for those all along the coast, the offshore threat is still looming.

Volunteer protection efforts have sprung up — from pre-cleaning beaches to building sand walls to block the oil. But mostly, residents feel helpless to stop it.

Melissa Bosarge Nelson, who runs boat cruises at Bellingrath Gardens in Mobile, Ala., has lots of questions.

"How long is it going to take before it's cleaned up, and how long before it quits pumping? I guess it's the finality of it. They're going to shut the waters and nobody can go out, you can't fish, you can't go in it. And you don't know how long it's going to be," Nelson says.

Federal waters from the mouth of the Mississippi to Pensacola, Fla., are now closed to fishing.

Looking out over the marshes in Coden, Ala., fourth-generation commercial fisherman Paul Nelson worries that the oil spill could be the end of his family's way of life.

"I see something that can't be replaced," Nelson says. "I see something there that we sure don't need destroyed."

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