In the chaotic aftermath of the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, a poorly orchestrated effort to knock down the towering blaze may have inadvertently led to the sinking of the platform, according to interviews and documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity and shared with ABC News.
As part of an ongoing government investigation, Coast Guard officials are trying to reconstruct the initial response to the rig explosion that unleashed one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. One concern surrounds the use of briny seawater instead of fire-retardant foam to drench the rig. The Coast Guard confirmed that Capt. Hung M. Nguyen, who is heading the investigation, is examining whether the decision to spray salt water across the burning platform overwhelmed the ballasts that kept the rig afloat, changing its weight distribution and causing it to list, and then sink.
"The joint investigation is absolutely looking into that, and whether it contributed to the sinking," Capt. Ronald A. LaBrec, the Coast Guard's chief spokesman, told the Center.
By the time the rig sank, oil was already flowing through the dysfunctional blowout preventer a mile below, and the sinking did nothing to make a swift and effective response any easier. As the giant drilling platform sank to the bottom, the riser pipe that had been carrying oil from a mile below the surface ruptured, and the oil from the ruined well began to gush from the pipe.
Coast Guard officials have acknowledged there will likely be important lessons to be learned by studying the mistakes they made in the aftermath of the massive explosion on the night of April 20.
For instance, Coast Guard officials told the Center for Public Integrity that while the service is well-equipped to mount search and rescue operations on the water, it lacks the expertise to fight a fire aboard an oil rig and did not even have ships in the area equipped to combat the blaze after the BP-operated rig exploded. That left the task of knocking down the conflagration to a group of private boats that answered the initial distress call, and the Coast Guard has yet to determine whether either those boats or the rig operator had access to fire-retardant foam, the preferred substance for combating an oil-based fire.
The Coast Guard's official maritime rescue manual – updated just seven months before the BP accident – recommends Coast Guard personnel avoid participating in firefighting aboard a rig. Instead, the manual requires Coast Guard responders to set up an "Incident Command System" and assign an expert, such as a fire marshal, to lead the efforts to extinguish the blaze.
But on April 20, the Coast Guard had little success coordinating the actual response, according to testimony gathered by the Coast Guard's joint inquiry with the Interior Department.
Kevin Robb, a civilian Coast Guard search and rescue specialist who functioned as the first watch commander the night of the accident, said at a May 11th hearing that there was no attempt by the Coast Guard Command Center to designate a fire marshal to coordinate the firefighting activities.
"Did you, sir, make any efforts on that first night when you responded to the Command Center to identify a certified fire marshal to oversee the firefighting efforts?" Robb was asked.
"No, sir, I did not," he answered.
"Are you aware of anyone else at the Coast Guard Command Center that made such an effort?
"No, sir, not to my knowledge.