As work began on a make-or-break attempt by BP to plug its out-of-control oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, top managers at the company's command centre in Houston, including chief executive Tony Hayward and managing director Bob Dudley, could do little more than hold their breath.
The “top kill” that began last night was an experiment of extraordinary complexity — blasting vast quantities of sludge down pipes into the well from a rig above in the hope that the sheer force of it would be enough to send the escaping oil and gas back into the Earth's bowels where it is coming from.
The intricacies were extreme, the possibilities for error almost endless. Never before has such a thing been attempted one mile below the surface of the water at multiple atmospheres of pressure.
At stake is any vestige of hope that environmental disaster could in any serious way be contained. There is also the future of BP itself, one of the world's most powerful companies and the largest based in London. A quarter of its market value is gone already. It is not clear whether the company could survive more months of leaking.
“Plug the damn hole,” President Barack Obama blurted to his aides in a private huddle a few days ago. It is a sentiment that the entire nation shares. Conversations at dinner tables for weeks have followed the same lines: how is it possible that nobody knows how to stop this thing?
Yesterday Ben Nelson, the prominent senator from Florida, said that if BP fails this week, then it will be time for Mr Obama to take control away from the company. It might not be wise operationally, but politically the President may have little option.
“If this thing is not fixed today, I think the President doesn't have any choice — and he better go in,
completely take over, perhaps with the military in charge — not because the military can do this, but the military has the apparatus, the organisation by which it can bring together the civilian agencies of government,” Mr Nelson said.
The catastrophe is threatening to weigh heavily on Democrats this November in the mid-term elections, which is one reason why they want it sorted out now and why Mr Obama will visit Louisiana and the affected coastline for a second time tomorrow.
Mr Hayward has claimed that the top kill is not the final option. “The next step of our plan is to move to a containment device that will be sealed on the top of the blowout preventer,” he said.
“That is on the seabed, and it would be deployed within a three- or four-day time window if the top kill is not successful.”
But they tried to claim that once and it failed. One other thing from BP — if we look at the “spillcam” and see the same oil gush that has been depressing us for days even after the top kill attempt started we shouldn't immediately despair. Pay no attention, the company website said.
“Throughout the diagnostic process and top kill procedure very significant changes in the appearance of the flows at the seabed will be expected. These will not provide a reliable indicator of the overall progress, or success or failure, of the top kill operation as a whole.”