Mike Williams says he was unable to watch scenes in the movie depicting the deaths of his fellow crew members
It’s been six years since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, but for survivor Mike Williams, the memory is still fresh.
“It haunts me,” Williams tells PEOPLE. “I’m still not completely over it.”
After the disaster struck in April 2010, Williams, who worked as the Chief Electronics Technician on the oil rig, quickly became one of the voices of the tragedy. Williams was one of the last workers to leave the rig, bypassing lifeboats in order to help save the lives of others still trapped. His dramatic story and moments of extreme bravery in the face of catastrophe is the subject of the new film Deepwater Horizon.
Williams, who is portrayed by Mark Wahlberg in the film, says that while he was honored that director Peter Berg wanted to tell his story on the big screen, the experience brought back some painful memories.
“It’s very anxiety-inducing. Reliving each of those critical moments, those critical time stamps, they’re all very vivid in my memory, and of course we didn’t capture all of it,” he says. “We condensed 12 hours into two hours, and so it was difficult to capture everything. But we did get the highlights, and what is portrayed in the film is all accurate.”
Of the 126 crew members on board, 11 people lost their lives the night of the explosion. Williams says he still struggles knowing that they couldn’t be saved.
“The men who died that night, we were not able to recover – not one of the bodies. And so that’s probably the hardest thing, knowing they didn’t get a proper burial,” he says. “It was simply too much, we couldn’t get to them. Initially, we didn’t really know because there was such chaos. Once we realized that – that there were 11 men unaccounted for – it was impossible to go back. There was no way to get back up there, no way to go back and try to help them. That’s probably the hardest thing to deal with.”
The subsequent oil spill became one of the biggest man-made disasters in history.
And while the events of that fateful night on the rig were unthinkable, Williams says the months – and even years – following were almost impossible to bear.
“I spent about two years in my house. I have severe PTSD, survivor’s guilt that took me a very long time to overcome. I’m still not completely over it, but I’m able to function in public now. For the first 18 to 24 months, I couldn’t be in a crowded room. I couldn’t be anywhere I couldn’t see exits. All those things were very difficult. ”
Even now, the “sound of a helicopter” can still trigger his trauma.
“The sound of a helicopter still takes me back to that night,” he explains. “I guess that final extraction, being one of the 18 who was critically injured and who was medi-vac’d off the Damon Bankston (a nearby supply boat), I still have this triggering mechanism that every time I hear a helicopter, it takes me right back there.”
And while Williams was a regular presence on the set of Deepwater Horizon, helping both the actors and Berg navigate the story, he was hesitant to watch the film once it was completed. Williams brought his psychologist to the screening as support “just in case” he had a negative reaction.
“I was very conflicted,” he recalls of receiving a first call from Berg to view the film. “I was very hesitant to go watch it, I guess, on his terms. I wanted to watch it on my terms. I didn’t know how I was going to take it. I knew [my psychologist] would see – I hoped that if I ran out of there screaming, I would hope she could be the one who could calm me back down. It didn’t get there, but she was there with me.”
But still, he simply couldn’t bring himself to watch some scenes.
“We sat and watched it, and there were multiple scenes that I covered my face. I simply couldn’t watch, it was very difficult,” he says of the scenes depicting the deaths of his fellow crew members. “There are four elements in the film that I did not watch them film it. I had nothing to do with the editing, I had no input whatsoever as to what happened during those scenes, and that was the first time I was going to see them in the version that was going to be put out to the public.”
“I was not there, there was not a single witness to any of the people who lost their life that night. Any of those spaces where people died, there were no survivors,” he says. “Ultimately, no one except the man above knows what happened that night in those spaces. So I could only tell [filmmakers] what they should have been doing, what they could have been doing and who were in those spaces. I could not watch them.”
Williams says that after all the pain and all the work that went into his recovery, he was willing to risk it all in order to honor the men who lost their lives.
“It’s an important tribute to my 11 brothers. When I agreed to assist them with this project, it was under the direction of ‘I have to speak for 11 people who cannot speak,’ ” he says. “I have to tell these guys how to get this right so that their image is held up in the highest light possible. That was my motivation for the entire project.”