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Rig worker: Training saved lives after explosion killed 11 workers, triggered Gulf oil spill

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NEW ORLEANS - A Transocean employee who served as chief mate on the Deepwater Horizon testified Monday that he believes the rig crew's emergency training saved lives following the 2010 explosion that killed 11 workers and triggered the nation's worst offshore oil spill.

David Young, who was second-in-command to the rig's captain, said he believes 115 workers managed to escape the burning rig that BP had leased from Transocean because they followed their training.

"What would you say the top priority of the Deepwater Horizon crew was?" Transocean attorney Luis Li asked at the start of the fifth week of a federal trial over the disaster.

"For everybody to be able to go home safely back to their families," said Young, a witness called by his employer, a Swiss-based drilling company.

Young, now the captain on a different Transocean-owned rig in the Gulf, said he believes the rig's crew had an excellent safety culture.

But plaintiffs' attorneys have accused BP and its contractors of sacrificing safety and cutting corners in a rush to complete a project that was behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget at the time of the April 20, 2010, blowout. Marine safety expert Geoff Webster, a witness for the plaintiffs, testified earlier this month that he believes Transocean failed to properly maintain the Deepwater Horizon or adequately train its crew members.

Young defended the Deepwater Horizon's maintenance record before the explosion.

"Did anyone at BP tell you the rig was unsafe?" Li asked.

"No," Young said.

Young described a harrowing scene as workers scrambled to help injured colleagues get to life rafts and abandon the burning rig. He recalled seeing the lifeless body of crane operator Dale Burkeen on the deck.

"The fire was over our head where we were. There was debris flying around," he said.

Unable to move Burkeen, Young ran over to get help from another worker, Mike Mayfield. Young said Mayfield restrained him from trying to run back through the flames to reach Burkeen, one of the 11 workers who died.

"I kind of had tunnel vision because I thought I was still going to get to him, but once I saw what Mike Mayfield was saying, there was no way we were going to get back there," Young said.

As life rafts started to carry workers to safety, Young returned to the bridge and told the captain, Curt Kuchta, that the fire was too large to fight.

"Was anybody on the bridge panicking?" Li asked.

"Not that I noticed, no," he said.

Kuchta has invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and isn't scheduled to testify at the trial.

Earlier Monday, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier heard videotaped testimony by Paul Meinhart, a Transocean rig worker who described Kuchta as "very calm and direct" after the blowout.

During the trial's opening statements, plaintiffs' attorney Jim Roy claimed Kuchta was "woefully undertrained" in the rig's safety management system. Roy also said the Deepwater Horizon's "dual command structure" prevented Kuchta from unilaterally activating a system that disconnected the rig from the well in an emergency.

Young said he personally sounded the rig's general alarm after the explosion, contradicting testimony by Webster, who said the alarm never sounded.

Barbier is hearing testimony without a jury. Barring a settlement, he could decide how much more money the companies should pay for their roles in the disaster.

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