The big-budget Hollywood take on the 2010 explosion of the offshore drilling rig known as Deepwater Horizon opens today. Directed by Peter Berg and featuring Mark Wahlberg, the film arrives as a star-driven disaster movie, suspensefully depicting events that included the deaths of eleven men, the destruction of a half-billion-dollar drilling platform, and the worst human-made ecological disaster in Gulf Coast history.
As is frequently the case with big productions, where the film ended up isn’t where it was always headed, and initial director J. C. Chandor had a different vision for the story before being replaced over “creative differences” with the studio. Chandor’s plan was apparently to tell the story from the perspective of “everyone that was on the rig,” with an ensemble cast of over one hundred people. It’s worth noting that, according to a new analysis of the disaster by two senior systems engineers, Chandor’s version was on the right track.
Earl Boebert and James Blossom use a systems model to investigate what happened at the Macondo well, focusing on the complex interactions of technology, people, and procedures. From their book, Deepwater Horizon: A Systems Analysis of the Macondo Disaster:
A system is a collection of components developed more or less independently—plus the people who operate them. Two things make it a system: it has an intended purpose, and it exhibits what systems engineers call emergent properties. An emergent property is something that arises from the interaction between components rather than from the behavior of a single one. Emergent properties are things like safety, security, and reliability. They are typically important and hard to quantify.
Emergent properties suggest the possibility of emergent events: events that result from a combination of decisions, actions, and attributes of a system’s components, rather than from a single act or from the failure of a single piece of equipment. The Horizon disaster was the very model of an emergent event.
A systems analysis resists the tendency to focus on a single cause, an urge so common, and so misleading, that it has a name: “root cause seduction.” That seduction, write Boebert and Blossom, “is typically at the heart of efforts to assign blame or liability rather than prevent future accidents.”