TOPICS > Politics

Exclusive: Oil Rig Worker Shares Tale of Survival, Fear, Legal Tangles

BY Dave Gustafson and Stephen Fee and Terry Rubin  May 10, 2010 at 5:00 AM EDT

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HOUSTON | A loud whoosh jolted 23-year-old Chris Choy awake on the Deepwater Horizon.

“I thought somebody was outside, cleaning outside my room or something, so I just went back to sleep. And then I heard an explosion, but I didn’t know it was an explosion, I just heard a loud boom.”

On Monday, both online and on-air, the PBS NewsHour and NPR News will bring you much more on Choy’s tale and the legal battle he now faces surrounding a document he signed some 40 sleepless hours after the blast.

Choy found some clothes and hurried outside. A walkway was engulfed in flames. It was late the night of April 20.

“I was just in a panic,” Choy said Saturday in Houston, sharing his story exclusively with the PBS NewsHour and National Public Radio correspondent Joe Shapiro. As a roustabout, Choy’s job had many demands, including working as a fireman. But he didn’t see any personnel at their fire stations.

“I saw the flames coming out of the derrick. And I knew we weren’t going to put that out,” Choy recalled. He eventually made it back to shore, but 11 of his colleagues never did.

The Horizon, a nine-year-old oil rig owned by Swiss-based drilling contractor Transocean, and leased to BP, operated in the Gulf of Mexico.

As the rig’s operator, BP, scrambles to contain the oil pouring into the Gulf, Choy and his fellow survivors from the Horizon blast are beginning to speak out about what they endured and how their ordeals — mental, physical, economic and legal – appear to be just beginning.

Choy recounts that in the minutes after the explosions began on the rig, he and a colleague tried to rescue fellow worker Aaron Dale Burkeen, who had fallen from a crane and was trapped behind intense flames. But then the call came to abandon the rig.

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Burkeen’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Transocean and BP, according to media reports of documents filed in state court in Galveston County, Texas.

Eventually, Choy escaped, taking refuge aboard the MV Damon B. Bankston, a cargo vessel docked at the rig, but they didn’t head immediately for land –something he still doesn’t understand. As the rig burned, the Bankston stayed nearby for around “six or seven hours,” Choy said.

According to Choy’s version of events, the vessel stopped at another rig and picked up several members of the Coast Guard and a few other people. They began making demands of the Horizon survivors to fill out paperwork describing what they’d seen that night, Choy said. Choy said he and several others refused to sign the initial documents.

A Coast Guard spokesman told The NewsHour that such forms or witness statements are legally required during such an incident, and that their investigators wanted the forms before the vessel reached shore.

Additionally, a BP spokesman told the NewsHour that no BP lawyers were on the vessel that held Choy and other survivors before they were released on shore.

Choy’s lawyers Steve Gordon and Jeff Seely have claimed other survivors told them attorneys were aboard the vessel, urging workers to fill out witness statements.

Choy was later reunited with his wife at a Louisiana hotel. As the Choys prepared to return home to Houston, they said they were approached by representatives of Transocean’s insurance company at the hotel to sign a form.

The document reads: “I was not a witness to the incident requiring the evacuation, and had no firsthand or personal knowledge regarding the incident.”

But the bottom of the form reads: “I was not injured as a result of the incident of the evacuation.” Below that, Choy signed and initialed it.

“Physically, I didn’t feel hurt at all…. You know, I figured just having the bad dreams and stuff was something that would just last a couple days and kind of fade away. And it hasn’t.”

The waiver document has become a point of legal contention for Choy, after his lawyer filed a claim with Transocean for reimbursement of current and future medical expenses. Transocean’s attorneys responded to the formal claim with an e-mail to Choy’s lawyer reading, “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.”

Choy now says the document he signed shouldn’t count as he had “just gone through hell.”

Chris Choy

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Choy has since filed a lawsuit against BP, Transocean, Halliburton and other companies associated with the rig operation. Among his claims, he blames the companies for ongoing mental anguish and is asking for compensation for future medical claims and lost wages.

Transocean declined to respond directly to Choy’s claims, citing the ongoing litigation.

“From the beginning, our focus has been on the crewmembers and their families, working with all parties in the response efforts and conducting a Transocean investigation into the incident,” the company said in a written statement.

Jeff Rensberger teaches at the South Texas College of Law in Houston and is not involved in the pending litigation. He said such forms are often routine in such instances, but would not necessarily hamper a plaintiff’s claims.

“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 was not injured.’”

“Typically a corporation will have a sort of a playbook they go through when something big happens,” Rensberger explained. “And this, I would guess, was sort of part of their playbook to try to ascertain who may have claims against them.”

He also said the company might have had legitimate reasons to check on Choy’s physical well-being before letting him return to Texas.

“Consider this, if they had just sent a person home who later lapsed into a coma because they had a concussion and died, then the question would be, ‘Why didn’t you hang on to the person?’ And going back to the form here, which asked, ‘Were you injured?’ One legitimate reason to ask that question is to sort of have medical clearance that this person can now go home.”

While Choy signed the form saying he was unhurt, he said the flashbacks and nightmares have since proven otherwise. He’s receiving treatment from a psychotherapist who is treating four other rig survivors. Choy is taking some medication to help him sleep, but he’s still not sleeping well.

Choy said he used to love the thrill of being a roughneck making good money, having bragging rights back on land but he can’t see going back to that life.

“I enjoyed the people I work with. I enjoy the work. Enjoy the money. But I don’t think it’s worth it to go back out there. Even though I understand the likelihood of that happening again, it’s this slim. But I mean, as much as stuff bothers me now at the house just light noises there’s no way I can go out there and work safe, and not end up either injuring myself or hurting somebody else out there.”

Still, he can’t help but come across news of the oil spill created by the sinking of the Horizon.

“I try to keep up with the big updates,” he said. “I get on the Internet and stuff and they have the tribute videos and pictures and all that and I can’t help but look at it.”

On Monday morning, the NewsHour will have a full report posted online and NPR’s Morning Edition will have more from the interview. We’ll also have more Monday evening on the NewsHour’s broadcast.