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Tropical storm could hinder BP's watch on oil well

ON THE GULF OF MEXICO - Ships relaying the sights and sounds from BP's broken oil well stood fast Friday as the leftovers of Tropical Storm Bonnie blew straight for the spill site, threatening to force a full evacuation that would leave engineers clueless about whether a makeshift cap on the gusher was holding.

Vessels connected to deep-sea robots equipped with cameras and seismic devices would be among the last to flee and would ride out the rough weather if possible, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said.

"If conditions allow, they will remain through the passage of the storm," Allen said in New Orleans.

Bonnie made landfall south of Miami early Friday as a feeble tropical storm with top sustained winds of 40 mph. It broke apart as it crossed Florida and was a tropical depression as it moved into the Gulf, but forecasters expected it to strengthen slightly and roll over the spill site around midday Saturday.

The ships holding the robots would be among the first to return if forecasts force them to leave, but they could be gone for up to two days, said Allen, the federal government's spill chief.

The mechanical plug that has mostly contained the oil for eight days will be left closed, Allen said, but if the robots are reeled in, the only way officials will know if the cap has failed will be if satellite and aerial views after the storm passes show oil pooling on the surface.

Scientists say even a severe storm shouldn't affect the plug, nearly a mile beneath the ocean surface 40 miles from the Louisiana coast.

Also Friday at a U.S. Coast Guard and Interior Department joint investigation hearing, a rig worker said certain alarms on Transocean Ltd.'s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig had been disabled for a year before it exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico, causing the biggest U.S. oil spill in history.

The sound and visual alarms would have warned crew members of a fire or a large amount of explosive gas and were connected to an emergency air-vent shutdown system, Mike Williams, chief electronics technician for Geneva-based Transocean, said Friday in Kenner, La.

Supervisors told him "they didn't want people woken up at 3 a.m. to false alarms," Williams said. A computer system would have still detected high levels of gas or a fire, he said.

The panel is investigating what caused the rig, leased to BP, to explode on April 20 about 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The blast killed 11 workers. Williams, who has filed a lawsuit against Transocean and BP, said he never heard a general alarm. With Bloomberg News

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