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'Fire On The Horizon': The Rig Behind The Gulf Spill


The first anniversary of the oil rig explosion that left 11 workers dead and spilled five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico comes up on Wednesday. There's much to look back on about the accident aboard the Deepwater Horizon: the lives lost, the devastation of the Gulf's ecosystem, safety issues and corporate responsibility among them.

John Konrad, an oil rig captain and a former employee of Transocean, the company that owned the Deepwater Horizon, offers his perspective in a new book, "Fire on the Horizon: The Untold Story of the Gulf Oil Disaster."

Konrad is with us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Thanks for coming in.

Captain JOHN KONRAD (Author, "Fire on the Horizon: The Untold Story of the Gulf Oil Disaster"): Absolutely.

HANSEN: You're personally acquainted with some of the people who were injured on the Deepwater Horizon. What are their stories? I mean, I'm trying to think of what they would have told you just in conversation.

Capt. KONRAD: Yeah, a lot of these people were friends of mine. It's a very close-knit community. You know, the beauty of the offshore oil industry is you're out on this rig in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, one of the most beautiful places in the nation. You get to see the sunrise and sunset. And you're working with this crew, this team of people who becomes a second family. And that's how they refer to themselves. You know, you have your family at home and then you have your rig family. And because the industry is so small you get to know everyone.

On board the rig was one of my closest college friends from SUNY Maritime College. We went to the maritime academy together, Dave Young. Captain Curt Kuchta, is my age. We were both chief mates on other Transocean rigs together and we had parallel careers, and often talked about where the company was going and specific operations. And these guys were baffled by what happened.

They each had an individual piece of the puzzle but they didn't have the full story. And that's what I try to bring with the book was the full story from start of the rig; initial construction till the actual explosion itself and the amazing rescue that followed.

HANSEN: What was Dave Young's job on the rig?

Capt. KONRAD: Dave Young was chief mate, which is second-in-command after the captain.

HANSEN: And what has he told you about that day?

Mr. KONRAD: Dave was there on deck where the fires were exploding. He pulled people from the actual fires and was coordinating that response. Well, Captain Curt Kuchta's story was enormously different. He was on the bridge coordinating the whole scene and talking to Coast Guard, talking to the boats in the area trying to get available resources, medical helicopters.

And one person we feature is Douglas Brown. Doug Brown was in the engine room when it exploded. He could hear all of this happening - first the high gas level alarms happened. Then the engines start to rev up in RPMs. And it is really compressed timeline, he started noticing these small events happening faster and faster until the explosion happened. He was thrown from his chair and he didn't think he'd survive at that point. He was just majorly injured. And he just had this question, you know, in his mind: Dear God, how am I to get out and how is everyone else going to get out?

And these team members had to get together and help each other get forward to lifeboats and save themselves.

HANSEN: How is Dave Young doing today?

Capt. KONRAD: Dave Young is mixed. He's a strong individual and he believes in the job and he loves being out there and with the team, with the crew exploring for oil. But it's difficult for him to get out there on the rig. The company has also, you know, asked him to the slowdown a bit, to slowly reintegrate into his surroundings.

HANSEN: So it's pretty stressful.

Capt. KONRAD: It's absolutely stressful for all the crew members. They have this new thing in the back of their heads, something no one really thought could happen at this level. But he's - him and Captain Kuchta and Dave Brown are a trying to get back with their lives and learn the lessons of the disaster, see what can be done differently next time.

And I received an email from a former crew member of the Horizon who's now a captain on one of these oil rigs. And, you know, he was looking back and thinking what could be different and what has changed. I ask every VIP that visits the rig, what are we doing different? They answer with either silence or state: We are waiting for new regulations.

HANSEN: So, sort of in limbo right now.

Capt. KONRAD: It is in limbo right now. This is such a big event that people are still, a year later, trying to figure out what to make of this and how to move forward with the industry and with their lives.

HANSEN: Former oil rig captain John Konrad joined us from KQED in San Francisco. His new book, written with co-author Tom Shroder, is "Fire on the Horizon: The Untold Story of the Gulf Oil Disaster."

Thank you very much.

Capt. KONRAD: Thank you, Liane. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.