WASHINGTON — It was a two-day trip to the Midwest to talk about jobs and clean energy. President Barack Obama didn't mention the drama unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, where oil was gushing from a broken well pipe a mile beneath the sea.

The situation hadn't become a priority. Soon it would.

On the return to Washington aboard Air Force One, Obama learned the spill had become more worrisome. A third break was discovered at the destroyed well pipe on the ocean floor 40 miles from Louisiana's precious coastal marshes. Federal scientists believed at least 5,000 barrels of oil a day were being released — five times more than original estimates.

And there was no way to stop the flow.

The Gulf Coast region, ravaged five years earlier by Hurricane Katrina, was on the verge of a second ecological disaster. Would there be a repeat of the bureaucratic bungling that marked President George W. Bush's response to the hurricane?

While the Obama administration has faced second-guessing about the speed and effectiveness of some of its actions, a narrative pieced together by The Associated Press, based on documents, interviews and public statements, shows little resemblance to Katrina in either the characterization of the threat or the federal government's response.

On April 20, an explosion engulfed the floating BP oil rig in fire, toppling it into the sea and sending 126 workers fleeing. Eleven never made it and are presumed dead.


Advertisement

Eight days later, from Air Force One, Obama told advisers he wanted stepped-up action to what had suddenly become a more menacing threat to the ecology and economy of the Gulf Coast. The president, who had activated a national response team April 22, made no mention of the new developments when he strolled to the back of the plane to chat with the traveling press pool.

The fresh concerns would be outlined by the Coast Guard at a news conference that evening. It was not until the next day — nine days after the explosion and five days after first word the well was spewing oil — that the government would declare it a "spill of national significance."

Critics have asked why the administration did not move more quickly on that declaration, even though the real-world impact is viewed by many as largely symbolic.

This came from Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind.: "The American people deserve to know why the administration was slow to respond, why necessary equipment was not immediately on hand in the area and why the president did not fully deploy Cabinet-level federal officials" to the Gulf Coast until April 30.

The AP review found that the administration — aware of the political scars left on the Bush White House over Katrina — moved early with rescue efforts. Also, the government knew within days that though no leak had been found, the potential for environmental harm existed.

From day to day, as the situation evolved from devastating fire and dramatic rescue to a possible environmental hazard, the response activities changed, too, according to documents and interviews.

The explosion

Word reached Washington at 10:30 on the night of Tuesday, April 20, that the floating drilling rig Deepwater Horizon was on fire. Its workers needed to be rescued. The Coast Guard sent a pair of ships and four helicopters.

For a time, it was a rescue operation, and nothing more. The president was alerted because of the potential for a great loss of life.

Before noon the next day at the Interior Department, which oversees offshore drilling projects, the department's No. 2 official, Deputy Secretary David Hayes, raced to grab a commercial jet for New Orleans without even time to pack a bag. He set up shop at a government command center already monitoring events.

Underwater surveillance showed no active leak from the wellhead. Oil on the water surface was determined to be residual from the pipe and the burned-out rig, now floating precariously.

Hayes and other officials were confident the blowout preventer would keep any spill to a minimum. But it failed catastrophically, allowing 3 million gallons of oil into the gulf so far.

Asked why he flew to Louisiana so soon after the explosion, Hayes said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was concerned about the potential deaths of 11 workers, especially so soon after the April 5 mine collapse in West Virginia that killed 29 workers.

Two days after the fire erupted, Obama convened an Oval Office meeting to get the latest on what still was viewed largely as a major accident and rescue effort — 11 workers could not be found.

He asked departments to respond aggressively to help in the rescue and assess the environmental fallout. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs in a statement called the response "the No. 1 priority."

A team representing 16 agencies and offices that included the Pentagon, the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Interior and Homeland Security was formed. As a precaution, 100,000 gallons of chemicals to break up oil on the water was sent to three Gulf Coast locations.

By Friday, the rig toppled to the seafloor. Efforts to rescue the 11 missing workers ended. BP, which leased the rig for exploratory drilling, insisted that based on remote monitoring, there was no leak from the well pipe. Officials believed they may have dodged a bullet.

But that changed abruptly the next day when Rear Adm. Mary Landry, commander of the Coast Guard's gulf region, called Hayes, back in Washington, with some bad news. "We found a leak," she told him.

A new centralized command was set up in Robert, La. Though the possibility of a major spill never was dismissed, it now became a much greater worry.

For Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, later named as overall head of the response effort, the tipping point from rescue to potentially major environmental crisis came Thursday, April 22. That's when the rig, with 700,000 gallons of diesel fuel, sank to the sea bottom, raising the potential for more damage to the pipe and a worse release of oil.

The response

On Saturday, April 24, with the spill estimated at 1,000 barrels a day, containment efforts were stepped up. The number of vessels sent to the scene tripled to 30 and more chemicals were dumped on the growing oil slick.

By Tuesday, April 27, 20 more vessels had been added to skim oil and help out. In Washington, BP's chief executive, Tony Hayward, and other company officials were asked to the White House to describe their latest efforts to plug the leak and their plans to mitigate the spill's impact. Officials were told a relief well to stop the oil could take three months to drill.

Obama was briefed, although he did not meet with the oil company executives.

At the same time, an internal report at Homeland Security brought more ominous news. It concluded that marine ecology along the gulf "may be significantly more impacted than originally estimated" by the volume of oil now believed being released with a high risk of environmental contamination

The next day, Salazar flew to the BP command center in Houston to review the company's plans to deal with the leak.

The news got worse Wednesday, April 28.

In Washington, senior advisers and department officials were holding their daily meeting in the White House Situation Room when word came in from the gulf of a third leak found in the submerged pipeline. Separately, government scientists monitoring the oil plume on the water concluded BP's estimate of release was far too low and revised the estimate to 5,000 barrels a day instead of 1,000. That's when the call was made to Air Force One.

On Thursday, the administration's team participated in a news conference at the White House, followed by Obama in an appearance in the Rose Garden, where he commented publicly for the first time on what he characterized as the "worsening oil spill."

The next day, Friday, April 30, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Salazar and other administration officials flew to the Gulf Coast. The Pentagon made available two C-130 aircraft to drop chemicals on the oil. A quarter-million feet of boom was on site, but in the coming days it grew to 1 million feet, and the number of vessels increased from 75 to 200.

Into the weekend, the weather turned rainy and the wind picked up, bringing the forward fingers of the oil slick within nine miles of Louisiana's eastern wetlands.

On the rainy wind-swept Sunday, 12 days after the $350 million Deepwater Horizon was consumed by flames, Obama flew to the Gulf Coast to get a firsthand look. As Air Force One returned to Washington, Gibbs got the question he knew was coming.

Was the president mindful of some people wanting to make comparisons to the Bush administration's Katrina response?

Other than geography, Gibbs insists there is no connection: "We've done everything that we could."