My stepdad was working on a rig in the Gulf of Mexico when I heard that one of BP’s drilling platforms had exploded that Tuesday night in April 2010. Luckily he was not on the Deepwater Horizon, but I wondered who was—did I know them? Did their families live nearby?
There are many sides to the tragedy of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, and a new documentary released yesterday, “The Great Invisible,” delves into the lives of the survivors, the decisions made by BP and Transocean to forgo safety measures, and the frustration that many communities felt as they pieced their lives and livelihoods back together after the well was capped.
To me, the most compelling stories from the documentary were those we don’t often hear—the stories of survivors Doug Brown and Stephen Stone. Doug was hired by Transocean as chief mechanic for the Deepwater Horizon, and he’d worked on the platform since it was first built in 2001. Before the explosion in 2010, Doug had complained to Transocean that the reduction in mechanical staff posed a real safety issue.
But staff cuts were not the only issue aboard the Deepwater Horizon. “There were 26 different mistakes made,” said Keith Jones, father of Gordon Jones—a drilling engineer who died in the Deepwater Horizon explosion. The cement hadn’t cured, he said, there was rubber in the drilling mud and the hydraulics for the blow-out preventer were not working. These stories from staff aboard the Deepwater Horizon support the presidential oil spill commission’s conclusion that the BP oil disaster was caused by a culture of complacency, rather than a culture of safety.
Guilt is a prevailing sentiment among the survivors interviewed for the documentary. Despite his complaints about staff issues, Doug feels guilty as a lead Transocean staff member aboard the platform and even planned to commit suicide after the explosion. Stephen Stone worked as a roustabout on the Deepwater Horizon. “I didn’t really tell anybody that I was involved,” he said, “because I didn’t know if I should be proud of it or embarrassed by it, you know? And I still don’t know.” Keith said he had felt proud when his son Gordon got the job. “I bragged about getting my son work on the Deepwater Horizon,” he said. Gordon and his wife were expecting a second child when he was killed in the explosion.
Keith attended the screening at the New Orleans Film Festival last week. When asked by an audience member if there was any amount of money or convictions that he felt would truly hurt BP the way they have hurt his family, Keith, a lawyer based in Baton Rouge, said of his opponents in court, “I can make them pay, but I cannot make them apologize.”
BP is facing a fine as high as $17 billion to restore the Gulf of Mexico. Many survivors of the explosion, including Stephen and Doug, are still waiting on their settlements. But no amount of money will ever really reverse the damage caused, nor could it bring back Gordon and the 10 other people whose lives were lost.
The film’s director Margaret Brown, a native of Mobile, Alabama, said that she felt inspired to create this documentary because, even though she grew up on the Gulf Coast, not until the BP oil disaster did she fully understand that there is a “factory under the Gulf of Mexico that we’re all connected to.” That factory has led to great wealth in our region for a century now, but it also comes at great cost. As we work to ensure that the fish, birds and other wildlife in the Gulf are recovering, our thoughts are with the people and families who were directly affected by the BP oil disaster and who are also still recovering.