Blowout: The Deepwater Horizon Disaster

A Survivor Recalls His Harrowing Escape; Plus, A Former BP Insider Warns Of Another Potential Disaster

CBS All Access
This video is available on CBS All Access
With a lifejacket, Williams jumped feet first off the deck and away from the inferno. He had witnessed key events before the disaster. But if he was going to tell anyone, he would have to survive a ten-story drop into the sea.

"I went down way, way below the surface, obviously. And when I popped back up, I felt like, 'Okay, I've made it.' But I feel this God-awful burning all over me. And I'm thinking, 'Am I on fire?' You know, I just don't know. So I start doin' the only thing I know to do, swim. I gotta start swimmin', I gotta get away from this thing. I could tell I was floatin' in oil and grease and, and diesel fuel. I mean, it's just the smell and the feel of it," Williams remembered.

"And I remember lookin' under the rig and seein' the water on fire. And I thought, 'What have you done? You were dry, and you weren't covered in oil up there, now you've jumped and you've made this, and you've landed in oil. The fire's gonna come across the water, and you're gonna burn up.' And I thought, 'You just gotta swim harder.' So I swam, and I kicked and I swam and I kicked and I swam as hard as I could until I remember not feelin' any more pain, and I didn't hear anything. And I thought, 'Well, I must have burned up, 'cause I don't feel anything, I don't hear anything, I don't smell anything. I must be dead.' And I remember a real faint voice of, 'Over here, over here.' I thought, 'What in the world is that?' And the next thing I know, he grabbed my lifejacket and flipped me over into this small open bow boat. I didn't know who he was, I didn't know where he'd come from, I didn't care. I was now out of the water," he added.

Williams' survival may be critical to the investigation. We took his story to Dr. Bob Bea, a professor of engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.

Last week, the White House asked Bea to help analyze the Deepwater Horizon accident. Bea investigated the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster for NASA and the Hurricane Katrina disaster for the National Science Foundation. Bea's voice never completely recovered from the weeks he spent in the flood in New Orleans. But as the White House found, he's among the nation's best, having investigated more than 20 offshore rig disasters.

"Mr. Williams comes forward with these very detailed elements from his viewpoint on a rig. That's a brave and intelligent man," Bea told Pelley.

"What he's saying is very important to this investigation, you believe?" Pelley asked.

"It is," the professor replied.

What strikes Bea is Williams' description of the blowout preventer. Williams says in a drilling accident four weeks before the explosion, the critical rubber gasket, called an "annular," was damaged and pieces of it started coming out of the well.

"According to Williams, when parts of the annular start coming up on the deck someone from Transocean says, 'Look, don't worry about it.' What does that tell you?" Pelley asked.

"Houston we have a problem," Bea replied.

Here's why that's so important: the annular is used to seal the well for pressure tests. And those tests determine whether dangerous gas is seeping in.

"So if the annular is damaged, if I understand you correctly, you can't do the pressure tests in a reliable way?" Pelley asked.

"That's correct. You may get pressure test recordings, but because you're leaking pressure, they are not reliable," Bea explained.

Williams also told us that a backup control system to the blowout preventer called a pod had lost some of its functions.

"What is the standard operating procedure if you lose one of the control pods?" Pelley asked.

"Reestablish it, fix it. It's like losing one of your legs," Bea said.

"The morning of the disaster, according to Williams, there was an argument in front of all the men on the ship between the Transocean manager and the BP manager. Do you know what that argument is about?" Pelley asked.

Bea replied, "Yes," telling Pelley the argument was about who was the boss.

In finishing the well, the plan was to have a subcontractor, Halliburton, place three concrete plugs, like corks, in the column. The Transocean manager wanted to do this with the column full of heavy drilling fluid - what drillers call "mud" - to keep the pressure down below contained. But the BP manager wanted to begin to remove the "mud" before the last plug was set. That would reduce the pressure controlling the well before the plugs were finished.

Asked why BP would do that, Bea told Pelley, "It expedites the subsequent steps."

"It's a matter of going faster," Pelley remarked.

"Faster, sure," Bea replied.

Bea said BP had won that argument.

"If the 'mud' had been left in the column, would there have been a blowout?" Pelley asked.

"It doesn't look like it," Bea replied.