Word reached Washington at 10:30 on the night of Tuesday, April 20, that the floating drilling rig Deepwater Horizon was on fire. Its workers scrambled to be rescued. The Coast Guard sent a pair of ships and four helicopters.
For a time, it was a rescue operation, and nothing more. The president was alerted because of the potential for great loss of life.
Before noon the next day at the Interior Department, which oversees offshore drilling projects, the department’s No. 2 official, Deputy Secretary David Hayes, raced to grab a commercial jet for New Orleans without even time to pack a bag. He sets up shop at a government command center already monitoring events.
“We obviously knew this was a bad situation,” Hayes said in a recent interview. “But we were not in a mindset where we thought we were dealing with a major oil spill.”
Underwater surveillance showed no active leak from the wellhead. Oil on the water surface was determined to be residual from the pipe and the burned out rig, now floating precariously.
Hayes and other officials were confident the blowout preventer would keep any spill to a minimum. But it failed catastrophically, allowing 3 million gallons of oil into the Gulf so far.
Asked why he flew to Louisiana so soon after the explosion, Hayes said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was concerned about potential deaths of 11 workers, especially so soon after the April 5 mine collapse in West Virginia that killed 29 workers.
Two days after the fire erupted, Obama convened an Oval Office meeting to get the latest on what still was viewed largely as a major accident and rescue effort — 11 workers could not be found.
He asked departments to respond aggressively to help in the rescue and assess the environmental fallout. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs in a statement called the response “the No. 1 priority.”
A team representing 16 agencies and offices that included the Pentagon, the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Interior and Homeland Security was formed. As a precaution, 100,000 gallons of chemicals to break up oil on the waster was sent to three Gulf Coast locations.
By Friday, the rig toppled to the sea floor. Efforts to rescue the 11 missing workers ended. BP, which leased the rig for exploratory drilling, insisted that based on remote monitoring, there was no leak from the well pipe. Officials believed they may have dodged a bullet.
But that changed abruptly the following day when Rear Adm. Mary Landry, commander of the Coast Guard’s Gulf region, called Hayes, back in Washington, with some bad news. “We found a leak,” she told him.
A new centralized command was set up in Robert, La. While the possibility of a major spill never was dismissed, it now became a much greater worry.
Obama had yet to speak publicly about the issue.
For Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, later named as overall head of the response effort, the tipping point from rescue to potentially major environmental crisis came Thursday, April 22. That’s when the rig, with 700,000 gallons of diesel fuel, sank to the sea bottom, raising the potential for more damage to the pipe and a worse release of oil.
“At that point we knew this could go very, very bad. We were moving into a much more vulnerable potentially catastrophic situation,” he said in a recent interview.
Come Saturday, April 24, with the spill estimated at 1,000 barrels a day, containment efforts were stepped up. The number of vessels sent to the scene tripled to 30 and more chemicals were dumped on the growing oil slick.
By Tuesday, April 27, 20 more vessels had been added to skim oil and help out. In Washington, BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, and other company officials were asked to the White House to describe their latest efforts to plug the leak and their plans to mitigate the spill’s impact. Officials were told a relief well to stop the oil could take three months to drill.
Obama was briefed, although he did not meet with the oil company executives.
At the same time, an internal report at Homeland Security brought more ominous news. It concluded that marine ecology along the Gulf “may be significantly more impacted than originally estimated” by the volume of oil now believed being released with a high risk of environmental contamination in the Gulf.
The next day Interior Secretary Ken Salazar flew to the BP command center in Houston to review BP’s plans to deal with the leak and response efforts.
The news got worse on Wednesday, April 28.
In Washington, senior advisers and department officials were holding their daily meeting in the White House Situation Room when word came in from the Gulf of a third leak found in the submerged pipeline. Separately, government scientists monitoring by air the oil plume already on the water concluded BP’s estimate of release was far too low and revised the estimate to 5,000 barrels a day instead of 1,000.
That’s when the call was made to Air Force One.
On Thursday, the administration’s team participated in a news conference at the White House, followed by Obama in an appearance in the Rose Garden, where he commented publicly for the first time on what he characterized as “the worsening oil spill.”
The next day, Friday, April 30, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Salazar and other administration officials flew to the Gulf Coast. The Pentagon made available two C-130 aircraft to drop chemicals on the oil. A quarter-million feet of boom was on site, but in the coming days it grew to 1 million feet, and the number of vessels increased from 75 to 200.
Into the weekend, the weather turned rainy and the wind picked up, bringing the forward fingers of the oil slick within 9 miles Louisiana’s eastern wetlands.
On the rainy wind-swept Sunday, 12 days after the $350 million Deepwater Horizon was consumed by flames, Obama flew to the Gulf to get a firsthand look. He took a helicopter flight over the ecologically precious wetlands that may be tarnished by the oil.