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Deepwater Horizon: History vs. Hollywood

Starring Mark Wahlberg, Kate Hudson, Dylan O'Brien, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich | based on the New York Times article “Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours” by David Barstow

Mark Wahlberg
Born: June 5, 1971
Dorchester, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Mike Williams
Born: abt 1972
Birthplace: Texas, USA
Position: Chief Electronics Technician
Kate Hudson
Born: April 19, 1979
Los Angeles, California, USA
Felicia Williams
Stella Allen
Sydney Williams
(Pictured near the movie's release)
Kurt Russell
Born: March 17, 1951
Springfield, Massachusetts, USA
Jimmy Harrell
Born: November 10, 1956
Position: Offshore Installation Manager (OIM)
Dylan O'Brien
Born: August 26, 1991
New York City, New York, USA
Caleb Holloway
Born: April 9, 1982
Birthplace: Nacogdoches, Texas, USA
Position: Drill Crew Floorhand
Gina Rodriguez
Born: July 30, 1984
Chicago, Illinois, USA
Andrea Fleytas
Born: September 2, 1986
Birthplace: Los Angeles, California, USA
Position: Dynamic Positioning Operator
John Malkovich
Born: December 9, 1953
Christopher, Illinois, USA
Donald Vidrine
Born: October 17, 1947
Position: BP Executive/Nighttime Rig Supervisor
Brad Leland
Born: September 15, 1954
Lubbock, Texas, USA
Robert Kaluza
Position: BP Executive/Daytime Rig Supervisor
Ethan Suplee
Born: May 25, 1976
Manhattan, New York, USA
Jason Anderson
Born: November 22, 1974
Birthplace: Freeport, Texas, USA
Death: April 20, 2010, Deepwater Horizon, Gulf of Mexico (oil rig explosion)
Position: Senior Toolpusher
I didn’t go looking for this, but I did accept the challenge of bringing this to the screen and getting it right to speak for my 11 brothers who can’t speak. … We need to tell the story the way it happened. If one single family member objects to this project on the merits — not on the emotional part of it but the merits — then we’ve failed. -Mike Williams, LA Times, September 2016

Questioning the Story:

How far off the coast was the rig and how deep was it drilling?

The Deepwater Horizon true story reveals that the rig was located 52 miles off the coast of Venice, Louisiana. It was the largest oil rig in the world at the time and had been digging the deepest well in history, starting on the seabed at a depth of 5,000 feet beneath the Gulf of Mexico. The crew had been in the final stages of shutting down the exploratory Macondo Well located more than 18,000 feet below the surface. The find had the potential of yielding in excess of 200 million gallons of oil per year. As the film emphasizes, the Deepwater Horizon didn't pump oil. Its purpose was to dig holes looking for it and then move on. It was essentially a large boat that was floating on the water, unlike some oil rigs that are supported by stilts that reach the ocean floor. -Deepwater Horizon: Disaster in the Gulf

Had Mike Williams really been on a call with his wife just before the disaster?

Yes, but not as the disaster began. Chief Electronics Technician Mike Williams had just hung up from a call with his wife when he heard the engines revving, saw the lights glowing, and heard the alarms (in the movie, his wife sees his room get brighter on a video call but in real life he was already off the call with her). Like in the Deepwater Horizon movie, his lights and computer monitor exploded. He first assumed that it was caused by an engine that might have run away. Nonetheless, he knew there would be a sizable investigation into what was going on. The rig suddenly lost power. In total darkness, he intended to proceed to the engine control room to help the engineer diagnose what was happening. He didn't make it out of the shop before the first explosion struck. -60 Minutes

The real Mike Williams and actor Mark Wahlberg as Williams in the movie.

Were college students fishing under the rig just before it exploded?

Yes, though they are not depicted in the movie, several students had an up close view of the catastrophe. While fishing below the rig, they noticed a powerful wave of methane gas, which burned their eyes. "It was like a freight train coming through and I just hit the gas on the boat and tried to get away from it as quick as we could," said university student Albert Andry. They got about 100 yards from the rig and had a front row seat to the disaster that was about to unfold. -Deepwater Horizon: Disaster in the Gulf

Was Mike Williams really given a dinosaur tooth to bring home to his daughter?

No. In fact-checking Deepwater Horizon, we found no evidence that a driller on the rig gave Mike Williams a dinosaur tooth to take home to his daughter Sydney. In the movie, Sydney (Stella Allen) is working on a school project about her dad, explaining how he "tames the dinosaurs" by digging for oil, which is essentially plants and animals (including dinosaurs) that have decayed and been compressed over millions of years. The "taming" of the dinosaurs is an analogy that represents the controlling (or taming) of the oil well, a beast in its own right that is under pressure and has the potential to explode. It's a nice addition that helps to explain the science while also adding to the story's human element, but it's pure fiction.

Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) holds up a dinosaur tooth that he plans to give to his daughter. It's a fictional element that was added for the film.

What were the first signs that told the crew something was seriously wrong?

"I heard this awful hissing noise," the real Mike Williams said during a 60 Minutes interview, "and at the height of the hiss, a huge explosion. You know, this is it, I'm gonna die right here."

Did the Deepwater explosion really engulf the entire rig in flames like in the movie?

Yes. As evidenced by both witnesses and video of the Deepwater Horizon engulfed in flames, the real-life explosion was equally as bad as what's shown in the movie. Perhaps the best witnesses were the college kids who had been fishing under the rig. After smelling methane gas and fleeing to a safe distance, they had a front row seat to the disaster. "I saw a blue spark and then the whole thing just went up in flames," said student Westley Bourg. The massive fireball consumed the entire rig. "We felt the shockwave. We felt the heat. We heard it," said Bourg's friend Dustin King. "It was the loudest thing I've ever heard in my life." Bourg said the rig exploded "six or seven times." Video of the explosions and inferno was shot by crewmembers of a nearby ship that was moving in closer to try and help. The ship eventually became a refuge for the survivors. -Deepwater Horizon: Disaster in the Gulf

This Coast Guard image shows flames engulfing the real Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Methane gas explosions ignited the rig. Propane tanks and other flammables became potential bombs on the decks.

What caused the Deepwater Horizon oil rig to explode?

Researching the Deepwater Horizon true story confirmed the rig suffered what in the industry is termed a "blowout," a sudden surge of oil and gas that bursts out of the well. Drilling an oil well is a lot like puncturing a balloon. An enormous amount of pressure exists in the well, ready to unleash oil and gas. The pressure must be controlled at all times. To help do this, a blowout preventer (BOP) sits on top of the well head. The BOP is a 4-story, 350-ton stack of hydraulic valves that control powerful rams that can slam tightly shut and seal off the well completely if there's a problem. If those rams and the annular preventers fail to work, the last resort is the blind shear ram, which is supposed to cleanly slice the drill pipe so that it can be sealed off. The vessel above can then safely disconnect from the well.

In the moments after the gas on the rig ignited, the crew tried to activate the BOP before abandoning ship, as Mr. Jimmy (Kurt Russell) tries to do in the movie. However, the BOP failed to seal the well, most likely because the drill pipe inside it had buckled due to "effective compression" and was off-center when the blind shear ram attempted to cut the pipe. As a result, the pipe was only partially cut and a seal could not be made. Oil company BP later tried to blame offshore drilling contractor Transocean for failing to adequately maintain the BOP and control the well (Chemical Safety Board).

Was Mike Williams badly injured during the Deepwater Horizon explosion?

Yes. "The explosion literally rips the door from the hinges, hits, impacts me and takes me to the other side of the shop," Williams told 60 Minutes. "I began to crawl across the floor. As I got to the next door, it exploded. At that point I actually got angry, I was mad at the doors. I was mad that these fire doors that are supposed to protect me are hurtin' me." Blood ran from a head wound into his eyes. He could hardly breathe and he also had suffered injuries to his ankle and elbow. The latter rendered his left arm nearly useless as he tried to help the crew get off the ship.

Actor Mark Wahlberg (left) and his character's real-life counterpart, Mike Williams (right), on the set of the Deepwater Horizon movie.

Was crew captain Jimmy Harrell, portrayed by Kurt Russell, seriously injured in the disaster?

Yes. Nicknamed "Mr. Jimmy," Mike Williams recalled seeing Jimmy Harrell when he made it to the bridge after the explosions (Williams did not rescue Harrell outside his stateroom as Mark Wahlberg's character does in the movie). "He was coughing and vomiting," said Williams. "He was in pretty bad shape." Harrell was the rig's offshore installation manager (OIM). -60 Minutes

Did the lifeboats really leave without Mike Williams and the remaining crew members?

Yes. Both lifeboats that were designated to be used left without Mike Williams, the rig's captain Jimmy Harrell, and several other crew members. With about eight of them left on the bridge, they were about 20 yards from the lifeboat deck, which was down a flight of stairs. "When we get to the very last step, about eight of us, the other lifeboat starts descending," said Williams. "They had left without the captain and without knowing they had everyone who had survived all this on board." After loading a life raft and getting it into the water, it also left without them. Young technician Andrea Fleytas (portrayed by Gina Rodriguez) and another young man were stranded with Williams. -60 Minutes

Did Mike Williams really jump from an incredible height to escape the burning rig?

Yes, the chief electronics technician on the Deepwater Horizon, Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg in the movie), jumped 10 stories into the Gulf of Mexico in order to escape the flames that had engulfed the rig. "I remember closin' my eyes and sayin' a prayer, asking God to tell my wife and little girl that daddy did everything he could, and if I survive this, it's for a reason. I made those three steps, and I pushed off the end of the rig. And I fell for what seemed like forever," he told 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley.

Once in the water, Williams described his scramble to get away from the burning oil around him. "I feel this God-awful burning all over me, and I'm thinkin' 'Am I on fire?' Ya know, I just don't know. I could tell I was floatin' in oil, so I swam. And I kicked and I swam, and I kicked and I swam as hard as I could until I remember not feeling anymore pain. And I didn't hear anything. And I thought, 'Well, I musta burned up, because I don't feel anything. I don't hear anything. I don't smell anything. I must be dead." Williams had been badly injured during the explosions, and like in the movie, was eventually hoisted into a boat, which also picked up Gina Rodriguez and then toed a life raft to safety that was about to drift under the rig.

Like in the Deepwater Horizon movie, the real Mike Williams jumped from a height of roughly 10 stories to escape the burning rig.

Were Mike Williams' heroics exaggerated for the movie?

Yes, at least to some degree. In reviewing the film, the Chicago Sun-Times emphasized that Mike Williams' near superhero-level stunts in the movie were visual hyperbole. However, this doesn't downplay the fact that the real Williams helped to save the lives of his fellow crew members and was one of the last to make it off the rig, by jumping 10 stories nonetheless.

How many people lost their lives during the Deepwater Horizon explosion?

"You knew people were dying, you can't do nothing about it," said college student Westley Bourg, who had been fishing with his friends under the rig. "You saw flames shooting out the top of the derrick. Flames shootin' out the side of the rig. Nothing but flames." The true story confirms that 11 of the 126 crew members lost their lives during the April 20, 2010 blowout. The Coast Guard searched for them for two days, but the search was called off when the Deepwater Horizon succumbed to its fires and sunk to the bottom of the Gulf 5,000 feet below. Watch video of the Deepwater Horizon sinking. Miraculously, 115 crew members escaped the raging inferno. 17 were injured. -Deepwater Horizon: Disaster in the Gulf

Had BP officials really come to give the rig's crew a safety award on the day of the explosion?

Yes, despite the timing being hard to believe, this indeed happened. While fact-checking the Deepwater Horizon movie, we learned that on April 20, 2010, the day of the disaster, BP and Transocean officials showed up to give the rig's crew a safety award to celebrate seven years without a lost-time accident. In 2009, the crew had even made a hip-hop-themed music video that promoted hand safety.

Did survivor Caleb Holloway have the hymn words "How Great Thou Art" written on the inside of his hard hat?

Yes. Though it's not in the movie, Caleb Holloway, portrayed by Dylan O'Brien, had the words of the Christian hymn written inside his hard hat. He says that hearing the hymn triggers traumatic memories of the catastrophe. After the disaster, he heard the hymn sung at the memorial services of his coworkers ( Holloway was one of the few members of the drilling crew to survive the blowout, making it off the Deepwater Horizon in one of its life boats. "I felt like I was carried off of that rig by God's righteous right hand" (

The real Caleb Holloway (left) on the movie set and actor Dylan O'Brien.

Had BP executive Donald Vidrine really brushed off safety concerns?

Yes. Portrayed by John Malkovich in the movie, visiting BP executive and acting rig supervisor Donald Vidrine insists on going ahead despite complaints of faulty equipment and unfinished checks. The real Donald Vidrine had faced manslaughter charges for the deaths of the 11 rig workers but the charges were thrown out by the courts. Prosecutors instead pursued a misdemeanor pollution charge for which Vidrine received 10 months' probation. Prosecutors argued that Vidrine and rig supervisor Robert Kaluza botched a critical pressure test ("negative test") that would have warned them a catastrophe was looming. As explained in the movie, the negative test was done to determine whether the cement job to seal the well had worked. Remember, the Deepwater Horizon was just looking for oil and was not there to pump it. A second rig would come along later to do that.

Is BP executive Donald Vidrine, portrayed by John Malkovich, really the villain that the movie makes him out to be?

No. The movie places the blame mainly on Donald Vidrine's shoulders, but the real-life story is a little different. First off, the movie's Vidrine (John Malkovich) chalks up the bad result of the negative test to something he calls a "bladder effect." In real-life, investigations concluded that a Transocean employee who perished in the disaster was the source of the "bladder effect" hypothesis, not Vidrine. Furthermore, a report produced by BP known as the Bly Report states that before proceeding with well abandonment procedures, Vidrine spoke by phone to a BP engineer in Houston with regard to the problematic negative test. While the movie hones in on BP's Donald Vidrine as the villain, government investigations concluded that it was his BP superiors in Houston who were largely giving the orders for the crew to get work completed on the well, which was 43 days behind schedule. Donald Vidrine never testified in the federal hearings due to medical issues that his lawyer said were caused by the blowout. In the end, there was a lot of blame to go around, which was the result of several oversights and missteps made by BP, Transocean, and Halliburton.

After escaping the burning rig, did the survivors really gather on the deck of the Bankston and say the Lord's Prayer?

Yes, but this happened the following morning, not the night of the disaster. An assistant driller named Patrick Morgan spoke up first, "Our Father," he began. The others joined him in the Lord's Prayer to pay respect to those who had perished. The Damon B. Bankston was a 262-foot work vessel that had been moored to the Horizon.

Was the movie shot on a real oil rig out in the ocean?

No. The rig seen in the movie is an 85% scale recreation of the actual Deepwater Horizon rig. The entire rig, which was constructed using 3.2 million pounds of steel, was built inside of a giant two-and-a-half million gallon water tank. "It's one of the largest sets ever constructed in the history of film," says star Mark Wahlberg, who portrays chief electronics technician Mike Williams. The main deck sat 53 feet in the air and real instrument screens from similar oil rigs were used to recreate the bridge, in addition to real parts being used for the rigs construction. The real Mike Williams acknowledged accuracies "all the way down to the salt and pepper shakers in the galley." In addition to meticulously recreating the rig, current and former oil workers and Coast Guard members were cast in smaller roles, adding to the realism. In the end, the rig was set ablaze to recreate the explosions and inferno.

The Deepwater Horizon movie set (pictured) was one of the largest movie sets ever constructed.

Are the survivors happy with the movie?

Yes. In researching the Deepwater Horizon true story, we learned that initially the survivors and the family members of the victims were wary at the idea of a film. "I just don't want to see politics and political correctness and all that crap play into it," said Patrick Morgan, who was an assistant driller on the Deepwater Horizon rig. In the end, the movie instead focused on the tragedy of the explosion and honoring the 11 men who lost their lives. Director Peter Berg emphasized that he wanted to focus on the men who were just doing their jobs, some of whom gave their lives to prevent the oil from blowing out ( "I think he nailed it," the real Mike Williams said of director Berg. "I don't know how he could have done any better" (The Times-Picayune). Williams is portrayed by actor Mark Wahlberg in the movie.

Were divers sent down to work on containing the spill?

No, mainly for the fact that it was far too deep for divers. The well head was 5,000 feet below the surface where the pressure is 150 times that on land. "A human at that depth would be crushed to the size of a tennis ball," says Geoffrey Orsah, dean of the SMU School of Engineering. The deepest a human can dive is a little over 1,000 feet. Instead, engineers used ROVs (remote operated vehicles), which were tethered to the surface.

How many things did the BP crisis team try in order to contain the oil spewing from the well?

BP's team of scientists and engineers dubbed the "crisis team" came up with several plans to contain the spill. They first used an ROV (remote operated vehicle) to figure out where the leak was coming from. They determined that the oil was leaking out of the severed pipe attached to the top of the blowout preventer (BOP), which itself had failed to seal the well. The pipe, called a riser, had severed when the rig drifted after it lost power. Every minute at least 150 gallons of oil leaked into the Gulf. Below is a list of the strategies used to try to contain the spill. Most failed.

· Day 5: After realizing the power lines to the BOP are no longer attached, a hot stab is attempted to close the BOP valves. This involves inserting a device into the BOP to force the rams shut by injecting hydraulic fluid. The valves don't respond.

· Plans are made to drill 2 relief wells 18,000 feet down that will intersect the well and then allow concrete to be pumped into the main well to seal it off. This will take months and provides no immediate control over the surge.

· Chemical dispersants are released into the water, both from above and under the surface, including near the well head. The dispersants cause the oil to bead much like how dish detergent binds grease. It helps to break up the oil into more manageable bits, but some argue that the chemical dispersant may be just as damaging to the environment.

· Day 18: A four-story high rectangular steel dome is placed over the broken riser pipe above the well head in an attempt to create a seal with the ocean floor, trapping as much as 85% of the oil and allowing it to be siphoned to the surface. Hydrate icing around the well head prevents the seal from being made and the dome plan is scrapped.

· Day 28: A plan is enacted to thread a smaller pipe into the broken riser pipe in an attempt to siphon at least 20% of the oil directly from the leaking pipe. An estimated 84,000 gallons are siphoned from the broken riser, a daily rate they hope to increase.

· Engineers decide to try a plan known as top kill, which has proven successful in stopping runaway wells on land but has never been tried on the sea floor. It involves pumping "mud" down into the well followed by cement to seal it off. 50,000 barrels of mud (a mixture of water, clay and other minerals) are shipped in and a 30,000 hp pump engine is attached to a newly installed pipe to the Gulf floor. However, the top kill plan is halted around Day 38 of the disaster because they are having trouble forcing the mud down against the pressure of the oil coming out. The plan is abandoned two days later.

· Engineers next try a junk shot, which involves shooting debris into the blowout preventer (BOP) to clog the broken seals on the rams. The debris, or "junk," includes golf balls, tire pieces and knotted rope. All three junk shots fail. Completion of the relief wells is still months away.

· Day 44: Similar to the earlier dome cap plan above that failed, a Lower Marine Riser Package (LMRP) cap is lowered after the riser pipe is cut so that the cap can fit snuggly and oil can be channeled to surface ships. Methane is injected under the cap and around the well head to prevent hydrate icing, the issue that prevented the earlier dome cap from sealing with the ocean floor. The LMRP operates like a mini blowout preventer (BOP) by connecting to the riser and using a series of valves to control the flow. Placement of the LMRP is successful and helps to stop the oil from surging into the ocean.

· Day 83: The old cap is removed in preparation for a new cap to be installed on the LMRP two days later. The new cap contains a three-ram capping stack.

· Day 88: On July 15, 2010 at 2:25 pm, BP determines that the 40-ton containment device sealing cap has stopped all oil from flowing into the Gulf.

"When the technology exceeds the capabilities of the contingency plans that are in place, then you end up with the perfect storm, which is what we have today," said LSU fisheries agent Rusty Gaude during the disaster.

The blowout preventer failed to seal the well and contain the catastrophe.

How much oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico?

In the days following the explosion and sinking, it was thought that oil was gushing out at a rate of 42,000 gallons/day. However, on the 37th day after the explosion, that number was revised to 798,000 gallons/day. It became the largest offshore oil disaster in history, roughly 18 times the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, which spilled 11 million gallons. 16,000 miles of coastline were affected, including the coasts of Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida (Deepwater Horizon: Disaster in the Gulf). In the end, an estimated 210 million gallons of oil had leaked into the Gulf.

How big was the clean-up effort?

To help battle the worst ecological disaster our nation has ever faced, millions of feet of containment boom were laid with the help of local fishermen. Ironically, the booms were stuffed with pet and human hair, which work perfectly for absorbing oil. A month after the explosion, approximately 750 vessels and 17,000 people assisted in the response. -Deepwater Horizon: Disaster in the Gulf

Was Mike Williams' 60 Minutes interview referenced at the hearings to help prove BP was accountable?

Yes. In our investigation into the Deepwater Horizon true story, we learned that during the hearings, Senator Jeff Sessions expressed his disappointment at the lack of information offered by industry witnesses, stating that the senators and congressmen had learned more from watching Williams' 60 Minutes interview.

What was the financial cost of the spill?

In addition to the spill's heavy environmental toll, its financial one has currently cost BP $53.8 billion in cleanup, fines and settlements. The company plead guilty to 11 counts of felony manslaughter (for the crew members who were lost), one felony count of lying to Congress, and two misdemeanors. -Deepwater Horizon: Disaster in the Gulf

Deepwater Horizon Footage & Mike Williams Interview

Drill deeper into the Deepwater Horizon true story by watching the Mike Williams interview and footage of the Deepwater Horizon burning and sinking. Also view an interview with the real Caleb Holloway, who is portrayed by Dylan O'Brien in the movie.

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