The first time the Kulluk, Royal Dutch Shell's oil drilling rig, broke from its tow line in the Gulf of Alaska, crews pulled up the tow gear and discovered that a big, heavy metal shackle -- a key connector -- had somehow come off and was missing, Shell Alaska's top emergency response official told the Coast Guard Monday.
That equipment failure, around 11:40 a.m. on Dec. 27, was the first in a series of troubles that ended Dec. 31 when the Kulluk -- by then unmanned -- grounded off Sitkalidak Island, just south of Kodiak Island.
A Coast Guard marine casualty hearing into the circumstances of the grounding began Monday with a detailed account by Norman "Buddy" Custard, Shell's emergency response team leader for Alaska, about an increasingly frantic situation as crews on multiple vessels tried and failed to control the thrashing Kulluk during a winter storm.
Custard, retired from a 30-year-plus career in the Coast Guard including stints as a cutter commander, said his top concern in managing the crisis "was the safety of life at sea." He's the one who asked the Coast Guard to evacuate the Kulluk's 18 crew members, leaving the vessel unmanned and unable to anchor. It was Custard who at the end ordered the crew of the tugboat Alert -- the last one holding on -- to let loose of the tow line so that they, too, wouldn't be pulled into danger.
Back on Dec. 28 and into the next day, "the Kulluk was riding very lively," Custard told the Coast Guard investigation team, lead by Cmdr. Joshua McTaggart with the Coast Guard Investigations National Center of Expertise in New Orleans. The circular 266-foot diameter rig was pitching, rolling and heaving. The vessel crew was tired and worn out.
"We have to put ourselves in their shoes," he remembers telling others on the Kulluk incident management team.
He didn't want to wait too late to evacuate. He remembers what happened in December 2004 with the cargo ship Selendang Ayu, which lost its engine power and grounded off Unalaska Island in a storm. The seas were rougher close in. A rogue wave knocked a Coast Guard rescue helicopter into the sea and six of the cargo ship's crew members died.
The Coast Guard is investigating the grounding to see whether equipment failures and human factors played a role. In addition, McTaggart is examining the role of the Coast Guard and other organizations, including the decision to allow the Kulluk tow plan to move forward. He ultimately could recommend changes in equipment or systems, or actions against individuals licensed by the Coast Guard.
The evidence includes 79 exhibits so far: emails and tow plans, log notes and technical specifications, information about routes and weather. But the Coast Guard is not releasing any of that until its investigation ends, officials said.
The Kulluk left Dutch Harbor Dec. 21, under tow by the Aiviq, a large, new vessel built and operated by Edison Chouest Offshore for Shell.
After the tow rigging system failed Dec. 27, the Aiviq hooked up an emergency tow line and the Kulluk, for a time, was stabilized.
Custard said Shell quickly activated its incident management team at its Alaska headquarters in Midtown's Frontier Building. Top executives, including Shell's vice president for Alaska, Pete Slaiby, and its Alaska operations manager, Sean Churchfield, were on vacation. So Custard was not only the emergency response manager, but also acting operations manager.
Around 3:30 a.m. on Dec. 28, Custard was woken up with the news that the tow vessel, the Aiviq, was having engine trouble. He soon learned it had lost all four engines. A Coast Guard cutter, the Alex Haley, tried to attach a tow line to the Aiviq to stop its drift, but the gear became tangled.
Custard said that's when he knew the incident would take days or weeks to get under control. Shell, the Coast Guard and others formed a "unified command."
Ultimately, the Aiviq crew was able to restore power, but neither it nor other boats that came to help could hold the Kulluk in the storm.
Custard didn't have all the answers. He didn't know why the tow equipment kept failing. He didn't know whether Shell had a specific plan for evacuating the Kulluk crew while the vessel was under tow, in addition to when it was anchored for drilling. While complex operations usually have written risk assessments, he said he never saw such a document for the Kulluk tow. He said he talked with Shell marine manager John Kaighin about the tow plan but did not go over the risk issues.
Custard also said he signed off on the tow plan in Churchfield's place and should have noted that on the document, which said Churchfield approved it.
The Kulluk was refloated on Jan. 6. It's been sent to a Singapore shipyard for repairs.
The hearing in the Anchorage Assembly chambers at Loussac Library drew only a few dozen people, including a number of lawyers representing various companies and ship captains. Besides the Coast Guard, representatives of the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which regulates offshore drilling in federal waters, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Marshall Islands, where the Royal Dutch Shell's rig the Kulluk is flagged, are participating. The NTSB also is conducting its own investigation.
Shell used the Kulluk to drill part of a single well last year in the Beaufort Sea. It did the same in the Chukchi Sea with its leased drilling ship, the Noble Discoverer. It wasn't able to drill into oil-rich zones because spill containment equipment wasn't ready.
Shell announced in February it had dropped plans for more Alaska drilling this year but plans to return at some point.
The hearing continues Tuesday morning with telephone testimony from the tow master for an earlier transport of the Kulluk. Hearings are scheduled through May 31.
McTaggart's report is due July 5 to Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, commander of the Coast Guard in Alaska and should become public soon after that, said Lt. Cmdr. Brian McNamara, McTaggart's legal adviser.
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org  or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER