WASHINGTON -- Congress called BP and its drilling partners to account Tuesday for a "cascade of failures" behind the spreading Gulf oil spill, zeroing in on a crucial chain of events at the deep-sea wellhead just before an explosion consumed the rig and set off the catastrophic rupture.
In back-to-back Senate inquiries, lawmakers chastised executives of the three companies at the heart of the massive spill over attempts to shift the blame to each other. And they were asked to explain why better preparations had not been made to head off the accident.
"Let me be really clear," Lamar McKay, chairman of BP America, told the hearing. "Liability, blame, fault -- put it over here." He said: "Our obligation is to deal with the spill, clean it up and make sure the impacts of that spill are compensated, and we're going to do that."
By "over here," McKay meant the witness table at which BP, Transocean and Halliburton executives sat shoulder to shoulder. And despite his acknowledgment of responsibility, each company defended its own operations and raised questions about its partners in the project gone awry.
Lawmakers compared the calamity to some of history's most notorious mishaps from sea to space in the first congressional inquiry into the April 20 explosion and so-far unstoppable spill. In the crowded hearing room, eight young activists sat in quiet protest, with black T-shirts saying, "Energy Shouldn't Cost Lives." Several wore black painted spots near their eyes to symbolize tear drops made from oil.
Failure to plug the leak was intensifying impatience, from the contaminated Gulf waters to the White House.
A BP spokesman said an oil containment box known as a "top hat" was being brought to the site and undersea robots would position it over the gusher by Thursday.
The new device is much smaller than one that failed over the weekend.