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Chapter 1: Flaming Waters

Suddenly, magenta warning lights began flashing across the computer screen. Not just one. Not just two. The whole screen lit up in a frightening magenta array. The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig was in catastrophic trouble.

Gargantuan and muscular, the Deepwater Horizon, operated by BP—that is, British Petroleum, towered 320 feet toward the sky. She existed virtually in a class of her own. Designed for ultra-deepwater subsea drilling, the Deepwater Horizon was already famous for its celebrated prior accomplishment, the September 2009 drilling of the deepest oil well in history. That feat was off the Texas coast, where the Deepwater Horizon’s drill plunged more than 35,050 feet down.

Now, on April 20, 2010, in the star-splattered ocean night, the massive Deepwater Horizon was positioned off the Louisiana coast at Macondo Prospect, where it forced its sophisticated, electronically-supervised drill five miles down to siphon the precious petroleum that lay beneath the Gulf floor. Kept steady in 5,000 feet of water by complex computer-controlled dynamic positioning, the Deepwater Horizon’s careful positioning was aided by the rig’s own array of thrusters, capable of making minor adjustments for breeze and current.

Andrea Fleytas was the dynamic positioning officer on duty that night. A recent 2008 graduate of the California Maritime Academy, Fleytas was responsible for keeping the rig properly positioned and monitoring all the alarms. A complex leviathan like the Deepwater Horizon, drilling deep below the water and far into the earth, is wired throughout its structure to detect any trouble anywhere. Engine alarms, ballast control alarms, mud pull alarms, fire alarms, thruster alarms—hundreds of sensors were primed to flash alerts should any small operational detail go awry.

Fleytas thought her shift was little more than ordinary. Earlier that day, a gaggle of BP executives and engineers had celebrated the successful completion of a battery of safety tests, beating cost estimates. Weather at the Deepwater Horizon’s location was mild and the seas were calm. Fleytas came to the bridge at about 5:30 PM that night. Ordinary it was. But shortly after 9:30 PM, everything calm and ordinary would abruptly terminate into an out-of-control nightmare of mud, flames, death, and destruction. Around 9:30 PM, the careful balance of pressure and mud collapsed in the Deepwater Horizon’s risers. Drilling mud is needed to maintain the delicate wellbore stability that permits the drill bits to securely scour deeply through the earth and into subterranean oil formations.

With the pressure dropping, mud suddenly started to flow up through the risers. At 9:44 PM, mud and combustible methane began to gusher out of those risers showering the entire rig. Within seconds, a rigworker known as a “tool-pusher” sent an urgent message to the well site leader. Mud was coming up. Workers, he said, “diverted to the mud gas separator” and were now closing the annular preventer to squeeze off and seal the flow, thus limiting the damage. It did not work. Moments later, the assistant driller yelled a terrifying message to the senior toolpusher: “The well is blowing out … shutting it in now.”

Within moments, a dreadful hissing sound filled the air like an exhaling beast ready to pounce. Seconds later, it happened. Magenta alarms started to display. First, alarms lit for the so-called shaker house and drill shack, where workers tended to drilling operations. Then, the drill floor alarm went off followed by a mighty vibrating jolt that shot through the entire infrastructure as though the rig itself angrily convulsed.

Fleytas had been trained to respond to a few magenta lights, but never dreamed they would all go off at once. Dozens of them were flashing across her screen. Suddenly, everything went black as all power shut down. Five seconds later, the first explosion ripped through the Deepwater Horizon. Ten seconds later, a much larger explosion roared through the rig.

Running to the panel, Fleytas hit the distress buttons, sounding the general alarm. She broadcast a radio distress call: “Mayday! Mayday!” Moments later, the captain issued orders to abandon the rig. Escaping ahead of the accelerating firestorm, Fleytas jumped into a nearby lifeboat. The descent motor clicked on and began lowering. But when the lifeboat hit the surface, Fleytas was thrown out. She swam for her life as the Deepwater Horizon derrick became engulfed in fiery orange flames shooting hundreds of feet into the night sky. A roiling mushroom cloud billowed at the apex of the flames, ascending thousands of feet further toward the stars.

Shrieks of “Fire! Fire!” filled the corridors of the shuddering rig. Firefighter Chris Choy scrambled from his quarters, thinking he would never survive. “I’m fixing to die,” he thought. “This is it. We’re not gonna get off of here.” Disregarding the danger, Choy suited up in his firefighting gear and began to execute his training. From the force of the explosion, a crane operator had been tossed down the stairs to a spot about 50 feet below. He lay helpless as flames scorched closer. Choy went for the trapped man, but was stopped by a searing fireball that blocked his way. He realized he could not save the life of the man before him, the very man he was trained to save.

“It just killed me that I knew I couldn’t get to him,” Choy remembered. “That’s probably the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make in my life—that we had to … leave him there.” Choy himself managed to clamber into a lifeboat, where he found a confined Hades of screams, burning flesh, moaning broken bodies, and panicked men jumping into the cramped boat built for sixty.

The lifeboat’s motor wasn’t working. Unwilling to incinerate in the paralyzed lifeboat, Choy yanked off his seat belt and prepared to jump. Just then, a maintenance worker turned the engine over. Amid the screams and anguish of its occupants, the boat began descending to the waves below. Choy remained aboard.

Others never made it to a lifeboat. People began jumping off the burning furnace. They sailed 30 to 50 feet down to the dark waters below, going airborne just ahead of the immolating flames and heat that was consuming all of the Deepwater Horizon. Either by jumping or escaping, 115 men and women survived. Eleven perished in the watery depths or within the conflagration.

So powerful were the explosions that the intense shock wave smacked a man aboard a vessel watching from what he thought was a safe distance. The crew of that vessel marveled in awe as the water itself was aflame. The Deepwater Horizon was now an all-powerful, raging inferno. Nothing could stop the flaming fury until the blazing rig was completely consumed by its own burning rage.

On April 22, 2010, despite a ring of water-shooting firefighting boats that sprayed the fire for a day and half, the smoldering and fiery Deepwater Horizon wrenched and heaved its last. Its iconic helipad slowly pivoted perpendicular to the ocean like an unbearable shield lowered to eye-level. The smoking steel behemoth then toppled completely into the water, sizzling to its final disappearance and destruction.

Like the fireball of all oil exploration, the afterflow seemed unstoppable. Hour after hour, day after day, a fast gurgling torrent of oil spewed from the uncapped well. Eventually, about 4.5 million barrels, or 190 million gallons, of crude petroleum fouled the entire Gulf coastline and decimated the livelihoods of an entire generation of Gulf residents whose very existence depended upon the region’s natural beauty and abundant seafood. Petroliferous slime was slathered across the wildlife and wetlands, and indeed into the veins of a simple society of people who demanded little, possessed even less, but gave much to a greater society by virtue of their saltwater-soaked muscles and quiet will.

The broiling fire of the Deepwater Horizon was quickly replaced by a furnace of litigations, financial negotiations, and public relations. Rig operator British Petroleum, quickly under the spotlight, seemed to trigger all the wrong responses at all the wrong times as a shore-shocked America demanded answers.

At one point, on May 30, 2010, BP chief executive officer Tony Hayworth tried to show his concern for the awesome devastation his company had inflicted by blurting out in the midst of a spill-ravaged coastline and families, “I’d like my life back.” That seemingly insensitive, solipsistic remark provoked outrage from all quarters. On June 17, 2010, to undo the reverberating damage, BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg led a company delegation to the White House. After a meeting with President Barack Obama, Svanberg made clear how compassionate the company felt. “We care about the small people,” he said.

Who was and what was this giant company that viewed the lives of an entire region as “small people?” The company mobilized decamillions of dollars and an armada of PR men, lobbyists, and attorneys to portray itself as just an ordinary, caring company, being a good corporate citizen in a horrible moment. Indeed, BP went on a virtual war-footing to protect its assets, its image, and its future.

War is something British Petroleum knows well. The company was invented for wars. The enterprise was the very basis for wars. It actively participated in wars, determined the size and shape of wars, and was, in fact, a war company from the moment of its inception and through most of its war-torn history. Oil invented the political Middle East as we know it, creating nations that never existed before, for the sole purpose of becoming fuel states to supply this company. Oil was the ignition device for World War I, which saw the death and dismemberment of millions on all sides. Oil lubricated the Nazi war machine that savaged humanity. Oil has intoxicated and addicted the world as we know it today.

The history of Mideast oil and the reddened black puddles it has created in so many countries is in fact the parallel history of one company that hinged much of its success upon a single secret agreement. That story spans a century: British Petroleum and the Redline Agreement.