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Alarms on Deepwater Horizon Were Purposely Disabled, Chief Engineer Says

Jul 26, 2010 | Parker Waichman LLP

Alarm systems on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig were partially disabled when it exploded on April 20, according to the rig’s chief electrician. The gas and fire alarms were shut off because Transocean rig managers “did not want people woken up at 3 a.m. with false alarms.”

Instead, they were supposed to be triggered manually, but that never happened the day the rig exploded, killing 11 men and triggering the worst oil spill in US history. Workers aboard Deepwater Horizon have said they received no notice of an emergency until after the first of two explosions occurred on the rig.

Transocean Ltd. owned Deepwater Horizon, which it was leasing to BP. Michael Williams, who gave his account about the alarms last week, was a Transocean employee. He had been working on the rig since 2009, and was aboard when it exploded. He testified at a hearing conducted jointly by the US Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (formerly Minerals Management Service) in Kenner, Louisiana.

According to Williams, the alarm system on Deepwater Horizon was intended to automatically sound an alarm warning workers to move immediately out of harm’s way. He told the panel that he discovered a year ago that the system had been “inhibited”, and that he raised concerns about it with his superiors from six months to three days before the blast, which took the lives of 11 men. But his concerns were rebuffed.

According to Williams, in the inhibited mode, a control panel that would detect the alarm would indicate the alert, but general alarms that would sound loudly across the rig would not go off.

In his testimony, Williams also said that one of the rig’s crucial safety devices, which was designed to shut down the drill shack in case dangerous gas levels were detected, had been disabled, or bypassed. Williams said he protested to a Transocean supervisor, who responded: “The damn thing have been in bypass for five years. Matter of fact, the entire (Transocean) fleet runs them in bypass.”

According to The Wall Street Journal, Transocean has denied Williams’ claims, and has defended its safety practices. A spokesperson told the Journal that a manual alarm “conforms to accepted maritime practices” and that “repeated false alarms increase risk and decrease rig safety.”


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