Imagine you’re relaxing in your hotel room after a long day’s work. Your three-week business trip is nearly over and you’re returning home the next day. Then…
BOOM! A massive explosion rocks your world. Your room becomes an inferno of smoke and fire. You rush to escape, wanting to get to the ground floor. But that’s impossible. You see, you’re in a floating hotel attached to an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Land is forty miles away. What do you do? Will you survive?
Similar horror faced the Deepwater Horizon oil rig crew on April 20, 2010. Eleven workers perished. The resulting oil spill became one of the costliest US disasters, polluting the gulf and beaches, harming five states’ economies, prompting governors to ask citizens to pray for relief.
Horror and heroism
The spill, cleanup, and lawsuits against British Petroleum dominated the news back then. But the saga of what happened on the rig that night, and the valor that saved many lives, is a lesser-known story.
The film Deepwater Horizon depicts tragedy and triumph, horror and heroism, fear and faith as employees fight to save themselves and their compatriots. Opening September 30 (USA; plus on five continents in coming weeks), it stars Mark Wahlberg, Kate Hudson, Kurt Russell and John Malkovich.
The script drew from a lengthy and insightful December 2010 New York Times article, “Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours,” by David Barstow, David Rohde and Stephanie Saul.
Tragedy of errors
This debacle was partly a tragedy of errors. The Times’ analysis concluded that “crew members died and suffered terrible injuries because every one of the Horizon’s defenses failed on April 20.” Inadequate training met complex systems and human hesitation. The result: many staff received no warning of impending danger. A blast was their first clue. Dead seagulls fell from the sky.
Yet “many lives were saved by simple acts of bravery,” the Times continued. “All over the rig, in the most hellish of circumstances, men and women helped one another find a way to live.” The film depicts numerous examples of self sacrifice.
Electronics technician Mike Williams (Wahlberg) saw his computer monitor explode, then a major explosion smashed a door into his forehead. Bloodied, he crawled with a penlight in his mouth, then, with two others, braved flames in an unsuccessful attempt to start the ship’s generators.
Tension often characterized the crew’s relationship with BP executives, whose compensation was tied to on-time performance. Crew members felt pressure to cut corners in risky ways. Crew chief Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) helped carry a gravely injured exec on a backboard to a lifeboat. In another instance, the chief engineer said he ignored the captain’s suggestion to abandon an injured comrade, carrying him to safety. (The captain later disputed the engineer’s characterization.)
Fear and faith
As you might imagine, faith played a role in how some – maybe many – victims managed this crisis. The Timesreported that certain members of the drilling crew studied the Bible together during their stays on the rig. During the tragedy – amid intense heat, bursting nitrogen tanks, and injured crewmates – Caleb Holloway (played by Dylan O’Brien) started to pray, remembering a statement from the biblical prophet Isaiah, “Yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.”
Holloway described to the Times his escape as one of the last to enter his lifeboat: “The fire was intense. People were worried about the deck melting and falling toward the lifeboat. …I felt like I was carried off of that rig by God’s righteous right hand.”
The morning after the explosion, as survivors gathered on a nearby ship taking them to land, they could see the still burning Horizon. A crewman suggested that the group should say something in honor of their lost coworkers. Silence. Then a driller began, “Our Father….” Everyone joined him in the Lord’s Prayer.
Rated PG-13 (USA) “for prolonged intense disaster sequences and related disturbing images, and brief strong language.”
Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents. He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively. www.RustyWright.com
Copyright © 2016 Rusty Wright