Andrew Mackenzie was rushing towards South America when he took a call from an old friend. A dam failure had killed scores of people at a BHP site in Brazil just days earlier, and there was little time for social calls.
But the BHP chief executive made an exception for Tony Hayward’s call. The two men had been friends for more than two decades, having spent a significant part of their careers at BP, where Hayward was the much-maligned chief executive who wished he could “get his life back” during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Upon hearing of the dam collapse at BHP and Vale’s Samarco iron ore business, Hayward felt there were messages his friend had to hear. Mackenzie had already won plaudits for fronting the media in Melbourne within 12 hours of the dam spill on November 6, 2015, despite confusion reigning at the time amid the darkness of night in Brazil.
“We still don’t know the full extent of the situation,” said an ashen-faced Mackenzie in the hours after news of the disaster emerged. “It happened shortly before dusk and of course it is still night there, but we are working very closely with Samarco and with Vale, who are our joint venture partner in Samarco so we can understand the circumstances better as quickly as practicable.”
Hayward used the call to share condolences and some thoughts with Mackenzie, before the BHP boss continued his journey towards Brazil. Neither man could have known at the time that Brazilian prosecutors would eventually borrow heavily from the Deepwater Horizon incident when trying to extract billions of dollars worth of compensation out of the Samarco partners.
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