Gulf oil rig victims express anger over losses

McClatchy NewspapersMay 27, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Keith Jones began his testimony strong Thursday before the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee. When the topic turned quickly toward his son, however, Jones' voice cracked, his demeanor broke and he took a moment to collect himself.

Jones' son, Gordon Jones, died aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20. Gordon was 24, a father and a husband.

"Gordon was good at everything he did. Everybody likes Gordon," Jones said. "People who met him liked him, and the more they got to know him, the more they liked him."

Jones was in Washington to testify alongside survivors of the Deepwater Horizon blast as the Judiciary Committee discussed liability issues from the explosion and subsequent oil spill. Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., called the accident "the worst spill in U.S. history."

Jones, a trial lawyer from Baton Rouge, La., urged Congress to impose punitive damages on the companies that are responsible for the disaster and the subsequent environmental catastrophe.

"The loss of Gordon's income is the last thing Michelle grieves for," Jones said of his son's widow. "Please believe me, no amount of money will ever compensate us for Gordon's loss. We know that. But payment of damages by wrongdoers is the only means we have in this country to make things right."

"You must make sure they can feel it in their bank account," he said.

His voice breaking, Jones struggled to talk about his two grandsons, one just 2 weeks old, who'll never really know their father. When Michelle Gordon gave birth earlier this month, her husband's presence in the delivery room was limited to a family photo, Jones said.

A survivor of the explosion, Stephen Stone, challenged the committee to punish his employer, Transocean Ltd., for "gambling with their employees' lives."

Transocean, Stone said, asked him to sign a waiver — without his attorney present — saying that he wasn't injured in the explosion. The meeting, he said, happened in a Denny's restaurant less than two weeks after the rig sank into the Gulf of Mexico.

"You can't allow BP and Transocean to continue doing business this way," Stone said. "When these companies put their savings over safety, they gamble with our lives. They gambled with my life. They gambled with the lives of 11 of my crew members."

He refused to sign the document, he said.

Rachel Clingman, Transocean's acting general counsel, testified that the meeting was to give Stone $5,000 as compensation for possessions lost during the blast.

During the hearing, lawyers for Transocean, Halliburton Inc. and Cameron International Corp. — the company that supplied the blowout preventers for the rig, which failed to activate — shuffled blame to BP.

Representatives of BP and Transocean said that paying claims was a top priority. BP already has paid out some $37 million in claims, said Darryl Willis, the vice president for resources for BP America, who's handling claims against the company.

"We are going to pay all legitimate claims," Willis said. "We realize that we're going to be judged by our response to this spill, and we're going to pay for all damage to people, to governments, to the community."

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., grilled Willis on what would be considered "legitimate claims," and asked whether a legitimate claim would include those made by people affected by dispersants.

On numerous occasions, Willis didn't give a direct answer, only reiterating BP's line that it will "follow the law," and pay "all legitimate claims."

Before the witnesses gave their opening statements, committee members spoke about the proposed halt on drilling offshore of Virginia and Alaska, which President Barack Obama had announced earlier Thursday, and of raising the liability cap imposed on oil companies.

"I wonder why there should be a cap at all," said Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass. "I think that's the question we should pose to ourselves."

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