METAIRIE, La. (AP) — The fact that more than 100 people escaped the Gulf of Mexico rig explosion alive is a sign the evacuation effort went fairly well, though oil industry partners because of their expertise are currently needed to help the government during such a disaster, a U.S. Coast Guard official said Monday.
Capt. James Hanzalik, chief of incident response for the Coast Guard's 8th District, told the joint U.S. Coast Guard-Bureau of Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement investigative panel there was nothing more his agency could have done to prevent the Deepwater Horizon from sinking.
Hanzalik also said the Coast Guard currently relies on oil industry partners for help in rescuing so many people from a deepwater rig.
"Typically we don't have the assets to do that," Hanzalik said. He added that he would expect owners and operators of vessels at sea to have their own evacuation plans.
Fighting the fire on the rig is largely the responsibility of the industry because Coast Guard workers are not experts in that area, Hanzalik said.
"We never exercised our control over the firefighting efforts," he said. "We're not trained firefighters."
The rig ultimately sank, and some 206 million gallons of oil spewed from BP PLC's undersea well following the April 20 rig explosion, according to federal estimates.
The panel meeting this week at a hotel near New Orleans is trying to determine the cause of the blast and massive oil spill that followed. Of the 126 people on board the rig, 11 were killed. Besides figuring out a cause, the panel, which is holding its fifth series of hearings, is examining how to improve safety and oversight.
At least one more series of hearings is expected before the panel members begin collaborating on their report.
Also testifying Monday was the president of Smit Salvage Americas, which helped respond to the Deepwater Horizon incident. Smit is part of Donjon-Smit LLC of Alexandria, Va. The company, which has expertise in marine firefighting and salvage, was hired to try to help save the rig following the explosion. The Smit official said he didn't arrive at a Transocean command center until seven hours after the explosion.
Among the witnesses scheduled to testify later this week are key workers for BP and Transocean, an expert on mobile offshore drilling units, an expert on maritime alarm systems and a deepwater well equipment expert.
Perhaps the most critical testimony is expected to come from two BP officials who were familiar with the company's decision to use only six centralizers during the cementing of the well that blew out. Halliburton had recommended the use of 21 centralizers, which are devices that make sure the casing is running down the center of the well bore. If the casing is cemented off-center, there is a risk of an imperfect seal that could allow oil and gas to escape.
BP said in its internal report on the disaster that it released last month that its centralizer decision probably did not contribute to the cement's failure. But federal investigators are still asking pointed questions.
BP's well gushed for three months before being capped in July and then permanently sealed in September. The British oil giant owned the well but was leasing the rig from owner Transocean Ltd.
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