Coast Guard runs two probes of tugboat's grounding

Richard Mauer

The last and perhaps final working voyage of the tugboat Pathfinder appeared to have been routine and uneventful until it struck notorious Bligh Reef last week on the way home from an ice-scouting mission, the Coast Guard commander for Alaska said Tuesday.

"They were just out on a normal ice patrol," said Rear Adm. Christopher Colvin.

In a telephone interview from his office in Juneau, Colvin said his agency is conducting two parallel investigations into the Pathfinder's collision with the underwater rock, scene of the 1989 wreck of the Exxon Valdez. The Dec. 23 grounding resulted in a spill of a still-unknown quantity of diesel fuel and the disabling of the tug, but no injuries to its six-member crew.

Colvin said the Coast Guard marine safety office in Valdez was conducting a standard marine casualty investigation to determine why the boat hit the rock. A separate administrative review will look into the vessel traffic center in Valdez.

"Naturally, I have the same questions everybody else has," Colvin said. "I just want to make sure that our folks were doing what they were supposed to do, the way they were supposed to do it."

Colvin said he didn't know how long either investigation would take and wasn't prepared to provide preliminary information as it was learned. He said the crew had all given statements to investigators and were cooperating.

"This appears to be an accident. Nothing more," Colvin said.

Crowley Maritime Corp., the owner of the tug, said the boat's master and second mate have been relieved of duty pending further investigation. Colvin said the Coast Guard has not taken action against any of the crew's licenses.

On Tuesday, crews finished draining the remaining fuel from the boat's undamaged tanks and towed it from the fuel dock at Valdez about a mile to a container dock. The vessel, built in 1970, will remain there until it can be assessed for an ocean voyage to a drydock or shipbreaking facility, said Crowley spokesman Jim Butler.

"We're taking a hard look at the extent of the damage," Butler said. "It is an old vessel."

Butler said gauging specialists have been measuring the fuel unloaded from the tug and squeezed from absorbent boom placed around the vessel when it was still in Prince William Sound. The experts hoped to have an estimate of the missing fuel in a day or two, he said. About 33,500 gallons of fuel was in the two tanks gashed open in the collision, but a large portion was still floating in the tanks when they were emptied.

State officials have said the environmental damage appears to be minimal.

Colvin said the Coast Guard had officially notified the National Transportation Safety Board of the collision. The NTSB, which investigated the Exxon Valdez grounding, has the legal authority to intervene in the Pathfinder investigation but won't, said Keith Holloway, a spokesman at board headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The congressional agency picks its marine accidents carefully, he said, because it only has a handful of experts in the field. All were busy with the Dec. 20 crash in San Diego in which a speeding Coast Guard vessel struck a pleasure boat observing a waterborne parade, killing a child.

While the Pathfinder has human scouts to observe ice, the Coast Guard has special radar to do the same. But Colvin said the ice-tracking radar in Prince William Sound has been inoperable for about two months and won't be restored anytime soon.

The failure is the result of an unanticipated software problem that coincided with the nationwide upgrade of the U.S. vessel tracking system, he said. While the radar isn't officially part of the system, it uses the system to communicate with Coast Guard operations in Valdez. When the improvements were made, the radar went dead and there's no money in the current budget to fix it, Colvin said.

But Colvin said the missing radar didn't cause the Pathfinder to make its journey. That's because whenever the radar fails to pick up ice, a tug must be dispatched to make sure the transit lanes for oil tankers are really clear, he said. Before it wrecked, the Pathfinder had not encountered any ice in the shipping channels, making it likely that even with the radar, it would have been sent on its scouting mission, Colvin said.

"That's the weird thing about the ice radar -- if you don't detect anything on the ice radar, you probably have to send somebody out to make sure that there's no ice there," he said.

All Coast Guard navigation aids were working properly at the time, Colvin said.

As it headed out of Valdez, the Pathfinder called the Coast Guard vessel tracking center to say it was leaving the shipping lanes for ice patrol. It skirted Bligh Reef on its left, or port, side and headed west toward Columbia Glacier, the local source of ice floes and bergs. From there, it went to the east to the Bligh Reef side of the lanes, where windblown ice sometimes accumulates.

"They operate near the reef pretty routinely -- that's the challenge," Colvin said. "They were probably a mile south of the reef when they headed north, and apparently it's normal for them to head up on this course."

The Pathfinder crew called back to the Coast Guard vessel center in Valdez that their scouting was done, no ice was found, and they were heading home. They reported the grounding at 6:15 p.m., not long after it happened, Colvin said.

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