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Drill rig crew pressed to work faster, survivor says

June 11, 2010, 9:50 pm

Originally posted by Abbie Boudreaux and Courtney Yager - CNN - June 11, 2010

Houston, Texas (CNN) -- Stephen and Sara Stone say they never thought their six-month marriage would be tested so soon.

But on April 20, a day before her husband was scheduled to come home from a three-week stint on the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, Sara Stone found herself waiting to hear whether he was dead or alive.

"My phone call was that there's been an emergency evacuation on the rig," she said. She went back to their home in Houston, turned on the television "and saw that the rig was on fire."

Stephen Stone, a laborer aboard the rig, was asleep in his room after working a 12-hour shift when an explosion erupted. He was one of the 115 workers rescued from the Gulf of Mexico -- but it would be more than a day before he was allowed to call his wife.

Meanwhile, she was calling hospitals and praying her husband was still alive and unhurt.

"I finally was able to get a hold of an emergency response team, and they informed me that he was on the OK list," she said. "And ... where they'd been taken to, which was a hotel in Kenner, Louisiana."

The night of the blast, Deepwater Horizon marked seven years without an accident. It burned for two days before sinking, taking 11 men into the deep with it and unleashing the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

BP, which owns the well; Transocean, which owned the rig; and oilfield services contractor Halliburton, which performed the cementing on the well, all blame each other for the disaster.

Transocean workers have told investigators that rig managers and a BP executive argued over plans to finish up the well, which was several weeks behind schedule. And Stone told the House Judiciary Committee in May that work on the rig had to stop at least four times because of a loss of drilling fluid in the well, which indicated either an unstable or cracked formation.

Stone still works for Transocean. But he's filed suit against his employer, BP, Halliburton and other companies working on the doomed rig, alleging negligence. Transocean has not responded to the claims in court, but some of the other companies have denied the allegations.

Stone said he always tried to be safe on the rig, even stopping work at times to call attention to safety issues. But there were consequences, he said.

At one point, he said, he was called in for a talk with "one of the senior guys for Transocean" aboard the rig.

"They were saying my work performance had been slipping," Stone said. He said he told his bosses, "I always thought I'd try to pace myself. You know, we're out here 12 hours, so you try to pace yourself and not wear yourself out. And think about what I'm doing and work safe.

"As soon as I was done saying that, they were like, 'Well, don't use safety as a crutch.' So, you know, you kind of get mixed signals."

As a roustabout, Stone's job involved assisting crane operators and mixing the "mud" used as a counterweight and lubricant in the drilling process. It was a "bottom of the barrel" job, an entry-level position at Transocean. But he said that the drill crew was under pressure to work faster and that pressure worked its way down the chain.

"I think everybody feels it, and especially the guys lower down, because I'm sure the toolpushers and whatnot are getting plenty of pressure from the people above them," he said. "But you know, we're getting pressure from everybody, pretty much, down at the bottom."

Stone was awakened by the explosion. He said he ran outside to see the barrack spaces aboard the rig "just all fire" and the crew scrambling for the lifeboats.

"You can't see anything like that and not expect, you know, possibly to die. So you just kind of wait for it, you know?" he said.

He watched the rig burn for eight hours, first aboard a lifeboat and then aboard a supply ship that picked up the survivors.

Back in Houston, Sara Stone took the first flight to New Orleans, Louisiana. Though told her husband was safe, she still hadn't heard from Stephen.

"The main question that all of us had was, are they really on that boat? Why can't we speak to them?" she said.

Stephen Stone was finally allowed to call his wife 26 hours after the explosion and after submitting to a drug test. He showed up at the hotel a few hours later.

"It started out as the worst day of my life, and it ended up as the best," Sara Stone said. "I think we probably hugged each other for as long as we could."

Stone says he doesn't think he'll return to the offshore drilling business. But he said he did manage to salvage his most important possession before the rig sank: his wedding ring.

"This amazing person decided to go get his wedding ring from his room," his wife said. "I mean, he just has kind of really blown my mind as far as who he is."

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