BP Oil Spill: Did Firefighters Help Sink the Deepwater Horizon Rig?

"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.

"Do you know, if at any point, over the next several days there was ever any designation of an authority, a governmental authority to oversee or coordinate the firefighting effort for this rig?" Robb was asked.

"No, sir, I don't," Robb replied.

In fact, Robb told the investigative panel there were no Coast Guard boats capable of fighting the massive rig fire after it broke out the might of April 20. Within hours of the firefighting beginning, the rig began listing and eventually sank midday on April 22, Coast Guard incident logs show.

"The assets that were responding to this particular incident that night were basically search and rescue response assets. They were not firefighting assets," Robb told the Coast Guard inquiry in May 11, according to a transcript reviewed by the Center.

The captain of the Damon Bankston, a large private boat that helped rescue the majority of the rig employees, said neither he nor anyone else he knew coordinated the firefighting.

"I think it was a general response," Capt. Alwin Landry testified. The Transocean rig master captain and the first mate also reported little coordination of the firefighting efforts by their employees, whom they described as focused on trying to safely abandon the burning rig.

As vessels began trying to battle the blaze, they directed streams of gulf water onto the rig to try and knock down the flames.

Mobile Offshore Drilling Units (MODUs) such as the Deepwater Horizon stay afloat using a series of buoyancy chambers – large spaces filled with air and water from the ocean. The more water, or ballast, in a chamber, the lower on the water the rig will sit. An operator on the rig can adjust the water level to alter the height of the rig. But if the chambers swell with too much water, the rig could sink dangerously close to the surface of the water.

LaBrec said none of the Coast Guard ships sent to the explosion were equipped to fight a rig fire -- they focused instead on search and rescue. He acknowledged that spraying salt water onto a burning rig may have affected the ballast. "In the end it may really depend on what agent is available and in this case it appears it was salt water only," he said.

"We have expertise in fighting a fire on board our vessels, but since fire fighting is not one of our missions, we do not train for rig fires and that has really been the responsibility of the rig owner and operator," LaBrec said.

The chaotic, uncoordinated firefighting left Nguyen to openly question whether it contributed to sinking the rig.

"So what we're looking at here is maybe if there's no coordination out there, no direction out there, we may be throwing water onto a disabled vessel that may lead to this sinking; is that correct? Is that the potential?" Nguyen asked Robb. "If the firefighting efforts are not coordinated and we're putting water onto a disabled vessel, there's the possibility that no coordinated action may result in the sinking of the vessel? Is that correct, any vessel?"

"That is exactly correct," Robb testified.

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