David Usborne: All eyes on the plume in BP's crisis centre

Our writer feels the tension boil as executives in Houston endure an Apollo 13 moment

Share
Related Topics

The champagne was not popping at BP's command centre in Houston yesterday. Neck veins maybe. Roughly a third of the oil giant's top executives, including the CEO, Anthony Hayward, sat alongside the US Energy Secretary, Stephen Chu, watching, waiting and trying to breathe.

"There is a lot of adrenalin in there, it is extraordinarily intense," says Bob Dudley, the firm's managing director, who ducks out to speak to the sole print journalist let into the building on this morning of especially high stakes.

Nothing is static or boring inside that room, a sort of Mission Control as, in the Gulf of Mexico, BP suffers the equivalent of what befell Apollo 13. On one side of the room, live video is projected on to the walls showing the scene on the sea floor at the site of the sunken rig itself. Robotic submarines shine lights and roam. Eyes are focused mostly on the plume. At the moment it is spewing the mud that is being forced into the well as part of the top kill, and not the darker oil and gas we were seeing before.

But the real drama is on the opposite wall, hung with banks of flat-screen monitors showing the competing pressures of the mud that is being driven in and the oil from below that is trying to defeat it and leak out. When the mud – being pumped with 30,000 horsepower from ships above – is winning the battle, the executives in the room allow themselves momentarily to relax. But then the vital signs go into reverse and it is the mud that is again on the retreat. Everyone along the banks of chairs and desks grows tense again.

It has already been a five-week haul for everyone at the command centre. Carpeting has been trodden into smudged submission. Posters pinned to a wall displaying a letter of thanks to everyone involved from Mr Hayward are curling at the corners.

There are about 600 people on the job here, although most are shut away behind closed doors. Some emerge, sporting sleeveless blue jackets, identifying their very tightly defined roles: Litigations Supervisor, Incident Commander, Documentation Officer.

Many of them come here to work 12-hour shifts. Food is brought in – lots of chocolate-chip biscuits under clingfilm – and a massage therapist is on hand for those with knots in their spines. "They are an incredible group of professionals," Mr Dudley says.

Upstairs, in the public relations department, they are rushed off their feet. "And I used to think I had been hired to get BP into the newspaper," one spokesman sighs. Hundreds of calls come in every day, not just from the media – about 10,000 would-be deep marine inventors have called up so far with ideas – mostly crackpot – for stopping the leak.

Even in this tense hub, levity is allowed occasionally. Don't call it giggling at a funeral, because no one here thinks it has got to that point yet. But jokes about what better befits the firm's name have been doing the rounds here for weeks. Bayou Polluter is the most common. Beyond Petroleum just seems so unfortunate right now, Big Pickle very apt.

It has been five weeks since those dread words came to Houston from the well: we have a problem. It may be a day or two more before we know whether the men and women from this command centre can declare an underwater victory and return to their normal day jobs.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Regulatory / Compliance / Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mary Christmas: the Bethlehem story is Mary's moment, when a poor peasant girl gives birth to the Son of God in a stable  

The appeal of the Virgin Mary: A supernatural hope at a time of scepticism

Peter Stanford
 

Letters: Why Cameron is wrong about EU child benefits

Independent Voices
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there