Our latest Notable Narrative, “Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours,” tracks events leading up to the inferno that destroyed a Gulf oil rig in April of 2010. This tick-tock from The New York Times’ David Barstow, David Rohde and Stephanie Saul offers a compelling new take on a disaster that has already received extensive coverage.

Because of that coverage, every potential reader already knows about the blowout and explosions that left 11 dead. But the power of reconstructing events as they unfolded for those aboard lies in the fact that even if we know, the characters within the story don’t.

After an introductory section, Barstow (who wrote the piece) creates tension by starting a countdown ticking at the first clear warning that something has gone terribly wrong:

Mr. Holloway and Mr. Barron were working on the main deck when Mr. Holloway happened to glance up at the drilling floor. He could not believe it. Drilling mud was gushing up from the well, just like a water fountain.

It would be nine minutes before the first explosion, well data shows.

Nine precious minutes.

By including written records and interviews, Barstow sets two levels of information running during that 9-minute window. On one level, crew members are ignorant of what is happening and why. We experience their perspective in real time: “Just then, his computer monitor exploded. Then, light bulbs began popping, one by one.” We sympathize with their confusion and indecision because we see the chaos confronting them.

The second level of information reveals what has been discovered since, so that readers comprehend events in a way that those on the rig cannot. Near the end of the story, watching the Horizon blaze and list, one crew member says to another, “I don’t know what happened.” But because of the framework that Barstow and his Times colleagues have given us, we have a more complete picture. And those charged with setting policy for the future have a better shot at keeping tragedy from striking again.

Check back tomorrow for our Q&A with Barstow, in which he talks about the importance of being fair and the idea of bearing witness.

Image courtesy U.S. Coast Guard Visual Information Gallery.

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