Anchorage — The Coast Guard captain who oversaw the massive but ultimately failed attempt to stop Shell's drilling rig, the Kulluk, from grounding last year near Kodiak Island revealed new moments of danger and despair about the event on Wednesday.
Capt. Paul Mehler, the Anchorage-based officer for Western Alaska, was the federal on-scene coordinator during the effort to save the Kulluk and keep crews safe. In the unified command structure that included Shell, a state environmental official, a Kodiak Island Borough official and Shell contractors, the Coast Guard held ultimate authority, Mehler explained to the Coast Guard panel investigating the grounding.
"It's a team, and we do decisions jointly," said Mehler, the only Coast Guard representative called to testify in the 10-day hearing, which wraps up Friday. But as the top federal official, he said, "I have 51 percent of the vote."
The Kulluk was being towed by a single vessel built to be a powerhouse, the Aiviq, from Dutch Harbor to the Seattle area in December. But a shackle somehow came loose and was lost at sea, breaking the tow connection. All four of the Aiviq's engines failed. Other vessels came to help but none could hold the round, bobbing Kulluk in a winter storm. The Coast Guard eventually evacuated the Kulluk's 18-person crew with helicopters, abandoning it to come aground on rocks and gravel.
Cmdr. Joshua McTaggart, the lead investigator, asked Mehler about a decision to drop off a four-person salvage crew on the Kulluk when it was adrift and unmanned in the stormy Gulf of Alaska.
Mehler said the command team knew from photos and videos that multiple broken tow lines were hanging loose, but didn't know which one would work best. Then there was a reprieve in weather.
"If we can get, even for a short period of time, folks on board to assess, see where we are, and maybe adjust a line, so we have one good line to grab onto," maybe the Kulluk could be controlled and saved, Mehler said.
It's hazardous enough for boats to get close enough, he said.
The four-person crew included two men from Smit Salvage and two from Global Diving & Salvage. They talked to some of the last crew members evacuated to get the Kulluk layout. They looked at diagrams. They watched Coast Guard aerial footage of the rig.
A Coast Guard helicopter lowered them onto the Kulluk, then took off to deliver parts to the Aiviq, Mehler said.
But the Kulluk was no place for even tough salvage guys.
As Mehler told it, the men couldn't even walk around. "Let's get out of here," they said.
The Coast Guard helicopter, meanwhile, was having its own troubles. "Its cable snagged and tangled," Mehler said. It had to return to base. Another helicopter got the crew off. The foray didn't provide any useful information, Mehler said.
Mehler said the Coast Guard never signed off on Shell's tow plan, nor did it have to. But some on his staff were briefed on it.
Another member of the investigation panel, Lt. Cmdr. Brian McNamara, asked Mehler about Coast Guard oversight when the Kulluk and the Aiviq left Dutch Harbor on Dec. 21 for the weeks-long trip to Seattle.
"Were you comfortable, sir, that they were fit to head to sea?"
"Yes," Mehler answered.
The Aiviq had previously towed the Kulluk north from Seattle all the way to the drilling site in the Beaufort Sea and then back south to the Aleutians.
"Were you aware, sir, that on Nov. 10, 2012, the Aiviq during the transit from the Beaufort to Dutch Harbor had suffered a complete electrical failure that had put the No. 4 main diesel engine out of commission?" McNamara asked.
No, Mehler said. That failure, revealed earlier in the hearing by an Alaska manager for Aiviq owner Edison Chouest Offshore of Louisiana, occurred more than a month before all four engines went down during the Kulluk crisis.
With the benefit of hindsight, McNamara asked, what would he have done differently?
The Coast Guard inspected the Kulluk, but not the Aiviq, before they left and should have checked both, Mehler said. He later clarified that both vessels had valid Coast Guard certificates.
Mehler also described the mood in the emergency command center in the Anchorage Marriott Downtown just before the grounding.
He said he gave the order on Dec. 31 to cut the Kulluk free from the last vessel that held it, the Alert, a Crowley Marine Services tug boat. The Alert captain didn't want to give up, but a vessel tracking system showed his boat was being pulled by the heavy Kulluk toward shore.
"People felt as they had failed," Mehler said. "After a tremendous fight to try to keep Kulluk afloat and not go aground ... we made the decision based on safety of people."
The hearing at Loussac Library continues Thursday with a Shell witness and the Aiviq captain.
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390.