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Exclusive: Deepwater Horizon Worker Details Survival, Pending Legal Battle

May 10, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In an exclusive interview with the PBS NewsHour and NPR, oil rig worker Christopher Choy tells his harrowing story of survival aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the legal tangles he has run into since the blast.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn to the oil spill that continues to endanger the waters and coasts of the Gulf of Mexico.

Today, Transocean said the root cause of the explosion was the failure of a cement casing to plug BP’s underwater oil well. This comes from testimony prepared for tomorrow’s congressional hearings, according to Reuters.

Meanwhile, BP used a remote-controlled submarine today to spray a chemical dispersant underwater at the source of the oil leak, after receiving approval from the Environmental Protection Agency. That move came after this weekend’s failed attempt to use a large containment box to bottle up the oil that continues to gush at a rate of 210,000 gallons a day.

The company says it’s looking at other options, including using a smaller box and injecting the leak with debris, such as shredded rubber.

On Dauphin Island, tar balls continue to wash up three miles off the Alabama coast. And National Guard helicopters ferried tons of sandbags to Louisiana’s barrier islands to help stop the oil from reaching its wetlands.

Even as the oil continues to spread, some of the men who lived through the explosion that led to the spill are now telling their stories.

In a PBS NewsHour and NPR collaboration, we have one man’s tale about what happened that night and the difficult aftermath.

On the night of April 20, 23-year-old Chris Choy found himself at ground zero in what has now become a national environmental nightmare, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.

CHRISTOPHER CHOY, oil rig worker: People were going crazy. There was people jumping off the rig, people holding people back from jumping off the rig, people scrambling to get in the lifeboats. Everybody — a bunch of people were yelling, you know, we got to get out of here. The derrick’s going to fall. We got to get out of here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Twenty days later, Choy and his wife, Monica, believe they have got a new fight on their hands, against his former employer, who he says pressured him to sign documents that may keep him from receiving medical care and reimbursement for what happened that night.

CHRISTOPHER CHOY: When I signed that, I was — I didn’t care what it was. I wanted to sign the papers. I wanted to do whatever I had to do just so me and my wife could leave to go home.

MONICA CHOY, wife of Christopher Choy: They made it like it was nothing. And now they’re just trying to hold us against — you know, hold it against us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Chris Choy began working for Transocean, the rig’s owner, in June of 2009. Later that year, he joined the crew of the Deepwater Horizon as a roustabout, working with the crane operators, cleaning equipment, and doing various other odd jobs, including work on the fire detail.

This past weekend in Houston, he sat down with our public broadcasting partner Joseph Shapiro of National Public Radio.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, National Public Radio: Describe a little bit of what it’s like to be on this rig in the middle of the water.

CHRISTOPHER CHOY: It’s different than anything else you ever do in your life. It’s just, you know, a big, big box out in the water floating around. It’s hot, cold. No — there’s no shade anywhere. You know, it’s — most of the time, it’s pretty hard work. And, I mean, it can get lonely at times.

JEFFREY BROWN: On the night of the 20th, Choy said he finished his 12-hour shift, talked to his wife on the phone, and settled in for some sleep.

CHRISTOPHER CHOY: When I woke up to — I could hear something. So, I mean, I was out of it. I was so tired. I woke up. I could hear the gas coming through the riser. But I didn’t know what it was. I mean, it sounded like somebody pressure-washing the outside of my room. And then I heard an explosion, but I didn’t know it was an explosion. I just heard a loud boom.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was the first in a series of explosions that set the rig aflame, claiming 11 lives and spurring the most disastrous oil spill in decades.

Fully awake and scrambling from his room, Choy quickly realized the scope of what was happening.

CHRISTOPHER CHOY: I have never been a person to be scared of anything. I mean, the guys I work with will tell you, I ain’t scared of anything.

I was scared to death right then. I mean, I just — that’s all that was going through my head was just, I’m fixing to die. This is it. We’re not going to get off of here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Surrounded by flames, Choy and a colleague tried to reach rig operator Aaron Dale Burkeen, who had fallen from the crane.

CHRISTOPHER CHOY: And, before we could get there, there was some more explosions. And it put fire in between us and Dale. I mean, there was no way we could get through those flames. I mean, some flames, I will run through. I have ran through flames before, but there’s no way we could have got through that, no.

And that was — they started hollering to abandon the rig. And that was — that was just a real hard deal, knowing that — I knew that — that Dale was right there, and we couldn’t get to him.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: And Mr. Burkeen, we know, is one of your 11 colleagues who died.


JEFFREY BROWN: Choy reached one of the rig’s lifeboats, an enclosed capsule. Dozens of others also made it to the boats.

CHRISTOPHER CHOY: There was some people getting in, but they was just so scrambled. Some people were trying to just jump in them, and they were going crazy. And, I mean, it’s actually dangerous to be in a lifeboat if, I mean, the people aren’t properly trained in them and not — or people are panicking in a lifeboat, you can flip the lifeboat.

JEFFREY BROWN: Others jumped from the rig into the Gulf’s waters far below. And, in the end, 115 members of the crew would survive.

Choy’s boat made it to the Damon Bankston, a cargo ship that had been docked at the rig and was now floating nearby. From its deck, Choy looked on a scene of devastation.

CHRISTOPHER CHOY: We sat there for probably six or seven hours, and watched the rig burn. I mean, it just — it makes you sick to your stomach, just watching that and known that — that you’re missing guys, and that they’re up there somewhere, not knowing if they’re alive or dead or if they jumped off and somebody’s looking for them in a boat.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Monica, let me ask, what’s it like hearing your husband tell these — this story?

MONICA CHOY: I can’t — sorry — I can’t imagine going through that. Just — it was so hard. I’m just so thankful that he’s OK. You know, I can’t — I can’t say that I would be — I would probably run straight to the lifeboat first, too, to run. But I think my husband is a hero. You know, he stayed and he tried to help people. And I just can’t imagine going through that.

JEFFREY BROWN: As the rig burned, Choy was desperate to make it to shore and call his wife. Transocean had told the workers it would call their families.

CHRISTOPHER CHOY: Everybody wanted to call their family. But they kept telling us, well, we have only got one phone, and you all can’t use it. So — and everybody was mad, but there was nothing we could do.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: So, you didn’t get to call your family, but they said they would call?

CHRISTOPHER CHOY: They would not let us call.

Back in Texas, Monica was frantic. Her mother-in-law told her she had heard about the rig blowout, but there was no news from or about her husband.

MONICA CHOY: I just sat there. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t think straight. I didn’t — I didn’t know what to think. I sat there for a minute. And she just started balling and crying. And then, all of a sudden, it hit me that my husband was — could be dead.

JEFFREY BROWN: Around noon the next day, Monica finally reached someone at Transocean who confirmed that her husband was alive.

In the meantime, aboard the Bankston, Choy said members of the Coast Guard had boarded the ship and demanded that each worker file a report about what he had seen that night.

CHRISTOPHER CHOY: They said, well, there’s 94 people on this boat. Nobody’s getting off until I get one of these from everybody.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: And what — and what was the form?

CHRISTOPHER CHOY: This form, I don’t remember what all it — everything it said. I know, at the top, it said “I,” and then had a space for your name. And it said something about, like, it was, “I freely volunteer this information.”

And then it’s a bunch of blank lines front and back. And then, at the bottom, it said something about like, you know, this can be used as evidence in court and all that. I told them, I was — I’m not signing it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Coast Guard Petty Officer Mike O’Berry spoke to us by phone yesterday and said those forms were standard operating procedure for all accidents at sea to help with the investigation.

CHIEF PETTY OFFICER MIKE O’BERRY, U.S. coast guard: The Coast Guard is required to get these statements from any personnel that are either witness to or involved in any kind of marine incident. What the Coast Guard wanted to do is, we — why we flew these investigators out is to try to expedite that process.

JEFFREY BROWN: But Choy believes the Coast Guard investigators weren’t alone.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: But there are also lawyers from — there are lawyers there, from where?

CHRISTOPHER CHOY: I’m not sure where they were from. I was told that they were lawyers representing BP.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mark Salt, a spokesman for BP, which leased the oil rig, told the NewsHour: “Regarding lawyers, BP didn’t have any lawyers on the vessel.”

Transocean declined to comment when asked about the presence of any attorneys aboard the Bankston that night.

In all, Choy and his crewmates spent nearly 28 hours aboard the ship, before reaching land and finally being reunited with his wife at a hotel in Louisiana. But when they prepared to leave, they were confronted by representatives of a risk-assessment company working for Transocean.

CHRISTOPHER CHOY: They said, hey, have you filled out this paperwork yet? I said no. And they called me over there. And they said, like, well, we need this so we can know who to talk to. And they said, this is — they said, this is just a form that says you were not on tower, you didn’t see what happened leading up to the explosion. I was like, that’s fine.

JEFFREY BROWN: Also on the form was a line that read, “I wasn’t injured as a result of the incident or evacuation.”

CHRISTOPHER CHOY: And, you know, being up for as long as I have been up and everything, I didn’t figure nobody was trying to screw me over already. And, so, I just signed it, and trying to get out of there.

Physically, I didn’t feel hurt at all. And, I mean, I didn’t never think about anything mentally being wrong with me. I figured just having bad dreams and stuff was something that would just last a couple of days and kind of fade away. And it hasn’t.

JEFFREY BROWN: Choy says he has nightmares and has suffered mental anguish from the trauma. This month, when his attorneys notified Transocean that they would file suit, they received an e-mail from Transocean, saying: “We were surprised to receive your letter in light of the attached statement executed by your client indicating that he did not sustain any injury whatsoever,” and attached to the e-mail, the form Choy now says he signed under duress.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: And should this piece of paper count?

CHRISTOPHER CHOY: No, it shouldn’t count, because I had been up for almost 40 hours, and just gone through hell. And they want to throw papers in my face for me to sign to take them, you know, out of their responsibility. That’s one of the things they preach to us the entire time you work there and do any kind of training is, be responsible. That’s part of their core values, is responsibility.

And then the first thing they threw at me when I get to the hotel, you know, is a paper relieving them of their responsibility.

JEFFREY BROWN: Choy’s suit against Transocean and other companies involved with running the rig seeks restitution for mental anguish, loss of earnings, future medical expenses, and punitive damages for gross negligence.

Contacted by the NewsHour, Transocean wouldn’t respond directly to Choy’s allegations, citing the ongoing litigation.

We asked an outside expert, Houston attorney and law professor Jeff Rensberger, about the form Choy was asked to sign. He called it fairly routine.

JEFF RENSBERGER, professor, South Texas College of Law: Typically, a corporation will have a sort of playbook they go through when something big happens. And this, I would guess, was sort of part of their playbook to try to ascertain who may have claims against them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rensberger also said the fact that Choy signed the form wouldn’t necessarily derail any lawsuit.

JEFF RENSBERGER: It doesn’t say that “I promise to forego any suit against the defendants.” It’s just a series of factual statements: I was not a witness. I wasn’t injured.

And as the effect of that, it would be to simply a statement that this person has previously made. If there is later litigation, and they claim injuries, then the defendant could try to argue that they made an inconsistent statement earlier, and so you shouldn’t believe their testimony now.

And then it’s just simply for the jury to decide to what extent they disbelieve the plaintiff’s current — current story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Choy says he continues to suffer from flashbacks and nightmares.

CHRISTOPHER CHOY: I can’t hardly sleep at night without waking up with nightmares. She sees me having — jumping and breaking out in sweats and shaking in my sleep just from any noise. The air conditioner outside my house, when it kicks on — it’s out by — outside the window — every time it kicks on, I jump and I wake up, and, you know, I’m just freaking out.

MONICA CHOY: He seems totally different. Before all this happened, he was smiling all the time, happy, great, I mean, great to be around, just — and then, after this, he seems a lot — he seems like more depressed. And he’s just a totally different person.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Chris, you told us earlier that you really enjoyed your work on the rig. Is this something you think you would ever go back to?

CHRISTOPHER CHOY: No, absolutely not.

You know, I hate to say that, because I really did. I used to enjoy it, I mean, a lot. You know, I got to come home, back to bragging rights. You know, come on, yes, I’m a roughneck, you know, do whatever I — and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the people I worked with. I enjoy the work, enjoy the money.

But it’s not — I don’t think it’s worth it to go back out there. Even though, I mean, I understand the likelihood of that happening again. It’s — it’s slim. But, I mean, as scary — as much as stuff bothers me now at the house, just loud noises, there’s no way I can — I can go out there and work safe, and not end up either injuring myself or hurting somebody else out there.

I just — I don’t think I can bring myself to go back on a rig.

JEFFREY BROWN: Chris Choy says he’s not sure what he will do next.

In the meantime, the Coast Guard investigation into what happened at the oil rig continues. Field hearings in Louisiana begin tomorrow.