At half past midnight on a dark and drizzly Good Friday morning, most of the denizens of Valdez were tucked safely in bed. Many of them would soon be rousted by ringing telephones, by cars speeding off into the night, by the chilly fingers of catastrophe reaching into homes all over the sleeping port community.
Bruce "Skip" Blandford, a civilian Coast Guard employee, was one of those awake at that hour. It was his job to sit at the radar screens at the Coast Guard's vesseltracking center. The center keeps an eye on ships moving in and out of Prince William Sound through the treacherous Valdez Narrows and into the harbor that shelters both the city dock and the oilshipping terminal run by Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.
At 12:27 a.m., Blandford's radiophone beeped to life and a deep, scratchy voice speaking across 25 miles of water said the words that broke Alaska's heart. The Exxon Valdez was aground and leaking oil into the Sound.
The Daily News has reconstructed what happened during those first days of the bation's largest oil spill through public documents, Coast Guard tape recordings, sworn testimony of state, federal and oil company officials and interviews with numerous people involved with the spill, including Alyeska employees who were at the terminal as the response effort unfolded.
FETCHED UP HARD AGROUNDWhen Capt. Joe Hazelwood reported he had "fetched up hard aground" and was leaking some oil near Bligh Reef, Blandford was silent for a moment. A tanker loaded with 53 million gallons of crude oil was in peril on a rocky shoal.
He radioed back to confirm the tanker's exact position, then picked up the phone and at 12:30 a.m., the log shows, called Alyeska Pipeline.
The phone calls began in earnest: Alyeska employees people calling other Alyeska employees,Exxon and state and federal officials who by law had to be notified. Corporate executives in Anchorage were yanked from their dreams. The Coast Guard called its top officers in Valdez and its bosses in Washington, D.C. The state Department of Environmental Conservation station chief in Valdez called his boss, who called other DEC employees and got them on the road to Valdez.
At 12:31, Blandford radioed the rescue tug Stalwart and asked it to render aid to the stranded Exxon Valdez. Twentytwo minutes later, the Stalwart reported it was under way and heading toward the ship. It would take some two hours for the Stalwart, at its normal steaming speed, to make the 25mile voyage to Bligh Reef.
One of the first calls Blandford made was to his own boss, Valdez Coast Guard Cmdr. Steve McCall. McCall was awakened from a sound sleep. He remembers the midnight caller:
"The Big One has happened," the voice on the other end of the line said.
"I hope you're kidding," McCall told Blandford.
McCall directed Blandford to call the executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Tom Falkenstein, then he began to dress.
Ten minutes later, McCall and Falkenstein met up coming out their front doors theylive next door to each other in the government housing project and hurried to the Coast Guard station a few blocks away.
At 12:41 a.m., Blandford notified mariners that McCall, the captain of the port, had just ordered the port closed to any and all traffic. Incoming tankers the Chevron California and the Arco Alaska were just hours away and had to drop anchor at Knowles Head, about 15 miles from where the Exxon Valdez was pinned on Bligh Reef. They would remain there for four days.
Falkenstein, who had just spent four years assigned to the San Francisco office as a tanker inspector, headed out to the stricken ship. Chief Warrant Officer Mark Delozier, a Valdezbased investigator, went along.
So did Dan Lawn, the DEC official in Valdez, who knew the moment he heard that a fully loaded tanker had run aground in the Sound that a major disaster had occurred. As he told his boss, Bill Lamoreaux, that night: "I don't have to look at it. I know this is our worst nightmare."
THE "BIG ONE' HAPPENSDave Barnum, an Alyeska technician who was acting nightshift supervisor in the marine department, answered the telephone about 12:30 a.m. and learned of the spill. Even at that early hour it was being described as the "big one," the most serious ever in the Valdez area.
He alerted his oilcleanup crew six or eight people from the marine department who usually spend their 12hour shift loading and unloading tankers.
Once in a while there were small spills at the terminal, and the marine crews helped run the skimmers that scoop up oil or deploy the booms that corral it. It had been seven years since Alyeska had a team of oil spill response experts, a team that, much like those on duty at a fire station, did nothing but respond to spills, train to respond to spills, or keep equipment in top shape.
At least two berth operators continued loading the two tankers still in port, even though the state and Coast Guard had complained that Alyeska's response tends to suffer when there are tankers to tend to.
Terminal superintendent Chuck O'Donnell had been asleep just 15 minutes when his phone rang around 12:35 a.m. Within minutes, he had been called by three different people telling him about the accident.
O'Donnell said the first word was that the Exxon Valdez had "possibly" run aground, so he sent Larry Shier, Alyeska's marine manager, over to the Coast Guard office on his way to the terminal to see what was up.
Shier knew of the seriousness of the situation, according to the DEC and Coast Guard officials he talked to, by 1 a.m. at the latest. He assured them Alyeska was mobilizing its response, and he headed to the terminal.
O'Donnell went back to sleep.
"When my marine manager got to the terminal, I took an hour's nap," he said in an interview about two weeks after the spill. "Larry grabbed a sleeping bag and got some sleep" a short while later in O'Donnell's office.
Alyeska lawyers wouldn't let Shier be interviewed. The company also declined to let O'Donnell be interviewed a second time.
At 4:01 a.m., a formal "oil spill notification" rolled off Teletype machines at Alyeska offices up and down the pipeline and in Anchorage.
"This is not a drill," the message began. It put the size of the spill at 138,000 barrels, by several orders of magnitude the biggest spill Alyeska had ever seen.
At the Alyeska terminal, the quick response called for in a stateapproved contingency plan was faltering at the gate, the victim of cutbacks and complacency.
Employees and contract laborers arriving at the terminal, thinking they would grab gear and head out to the scene instead found vital cleanup equipment had to be dug out of warehouses and loaded on vessels.
Deepwater skimmers and booms designed for a spill in the Sound, rarely brought out in the dozen years of pipeline operations, were buried under stacks of heavy containment boom in a warehouse. Huge ship fenders used to hold two ships apart while one takes on the other's cargo were missing. They were finally found, hidden under several feet of Valdez snow.
A contingency barge that state and federal officials thought was always kept loaded with containment equipment so it could be launched at a moment's notice was empty, its important cargo stacked some weeks before in a warehouse.
Alyeska officials contend the contingency plan didn't require the barge to be loaded. But state and Coast Guard officials were shocked to find out the barge wasn't ready to go.
"Didn't common sense require it to be loaded?" a frustrated U.S. Rep. Wayne Owens, DUtah, asked Alyeska officials at a recent hearing. He was one of many who had asked that question and others like it as everyone discovered the difference between a paper plan and an 11milliongallon oil spill.
Workers describe the early morning hours of Good Friday as frantic, with people running back and forth to get equipment ready to go.
Boats needed to be filled with gas, booms needed to be patched and anchors to hold the booms in place needed to be made up.
By 6 a.m., 50 extra people had arrived at the terminal to help. Alyeska sent its night shift home, telling them to return at 6 p.m. prepared to spend 18 hours on the water at the spill scene.
One snarl in the response was the loading of the barge with booms, skimmers and other gear. For several hours, only one person was on hand to drive the forklift and operate the loading crane. Workers described a scene from a Charlie Chaplin movie: The operator would snag containers of boom with the forklift, drive to the barge, climb into the crane to swing each container onto the deck, jump from the crane to the forklift and speed back to the warehouse for another pickup.
At some point early in the morning Alyeska officials think it was about 4 a.m. even the loading operation got thrown off track. Alyeska blames the Coast Guard, but the Coast Guard says Alyeska misinterpreted a simple suggestion.
The company insists the Coast Guard told it to move lightering gear hoses, fittings and other equipment to move oil from one tanker to another from the barge to the tug to get it to the scene more quickly.
The Coast Guard says Alyeska is wrong. McCall says he never dreamed the barge was unloaded to begin with or that Alyeska would think he was more interested in lightering the ship than getting containment booms out to the spill. He says no one at Alyeska ever told him putting the lightering equipment on a tug would set back the response by several hours.
Out on the ship, the DEC's Lawn watched the blackness for the first signs of cleanup equipment. About 4 a.m., he called Alyeska from the tanker's satellite phone and was assured the equipment was on its way. He would be told the same thing several more times before Alyeska made it to the spill.
The barge finally shoved off from the terminal at 11 a.m., with 50,000 pounds of equipment on board. Tugs carried another 22,000 pounds. The barge delivered its booms and skimmers to the scene about 2:30 p.m. Friday. It was at least nine hours too late for the promised response time of 51|2 hours.
"A BOILING CAULDRON'Oil was rolling out of the ruptured hull of the Exxon Valdez when the Coast Guard and DEC personnel pulled alongside in the speedboat Silver Bullet shortly after 3 a.m.
"It was kind of like a boiling cauldron," said Lawn. The oil was "rolling up, boiling and cooking" around the ship.
He recalls climbing up the pilot's ladder and seeing oil in the water two feet higher than the surrounding seas, a wave of thick black crude flowing from the ship into the night.
Lawn went immediately to the bridge and spoke briefly to Capt. Joe Hazelwood. His field notes describe Hazelwood as "fairly quiet, pensive. His hand was up to his face."
Lawn spent most of the day in the chartroom behind the bridge, working with Chief Mate James Kunkel to figure out how much cargo poured from the tanker.
The chief mate told Lawn he didn't know what had happened, that he was asleep when the ship ran aground.
But he was wide awake soon afterward. By 3:30 a.m., Kunkel had just finished gauging the tanks when McCall radioed the ship. The Coast Guard commander wanted to know "whether any noticeable amount of oil has dropped out of any of the tanks."
"The initial figure is 138,000 barrels, and the chief mate's taking another check on it now," a tanker crew member told McCall.
Eight of the tanker's 13 cargo tanks were ripped open. Most of the oil escaped within the first three hours, it was later determined, although thousands of gallons an hour continued to blacken the water until after daylight.
By 4 a.m., when there was still no sign of Alyeska cleanup crews, Lawn called the terminal on a satellite phone. He spoke with Shier, the marine manager, and emphasized the gravity of the situation.
"I told him it was still leaking, and they needed to get every piece of equipment they had coming," Lawn recalled later. "He said it was on the way."
Later, Lawn would be surprised to find the equipment was still being loaded on the barge at the time Shier was telling him it was en route.
"I had no idea it wasn't on the barge," said Lawn. As head of the Valdez office, he was to be notified if any cleanup equipment was inoperable, according to state law. Lawn said he would consider the unloaded barge to be out of service, but Alyeska says it considers the barge to be in service even though unloaded.
When Alyeska still had not shown up by 6 a.m., Lawn called Lamoreaux, his Anchorage-based boss, and told him what was going on.
About a halfhour later, he again called Shier and told him more oil had leaked. "You need to get the equipment to Bligh Reef buoy," he told him.
The oil, Lawn told Shier, was stretching away from the ship and needed immediate attention.
Shier again assured Lawn the equipment was on the way. According to Lawn's field notes, Shier listed the equipment that was en route: 8,000 feet of boom, three deepwater seapacks including containment boom, all the skimmers, large and small. Shier said Cook Inlet Response Organization had been notified, cleanup expert Al Allen was en route to Valdez with fireresistant boom, and a helicopter with buckets to carry dispersants had been lined up, Lawn noted in his book.
Shier said helicopter would be there soon to look at the situation and a helicopter did fly over the tanker a short time later, Lawn said.
What Lawn couldn't see from the bridge of the Exxon Valdez was that dozens of Alyeska workers were still scurrying to get equipment together and loaded on the barge. It was still some four hours away from departure.
At 9:50 a.m., the tug Sea Flyer left the terminal, carrying lightering equipment and the fenders, but no containment or cleanup equipment. It made it to the Exxon Valdez about noon, according to an Alyeska chronology.
At 11 a.m., Shier testified at a congressional hearing, the barge left the terminal, arriving at the spill scene about 2:30 p.m. A second flotilla of cleanup gear was sent out just before 9 p.m. Friday night, Alyeska has said.
CREW WORRIES ABOUT SINKINGThroughout the dark, early morning hours, the Exxon Valdez creaked and moaned on the underwater pinnacle. Its crew and others onboard could only hope the groaning ship didn't slip from its perilous perch, roll over and sink to the bottom of the sea like a 200,000ton steel stone.
While some measured and remeasured the disappearing cargo, others made ready to transfer the crude oil left aboard to another Exxon ship, the Baton Rouge, which was expected soon after first light.
The Coast Guard tried to help by rounding up lightering hoses and fittings from other tankers pulling in to the Knowles Head anchorage. A landing craft loaded with logs for Two Moon Bay near Cordova agreed to come back after dumping its load, pick up the lightering gear from the tankers and take it to the Exxon Valdez. Vessel traffic was slow that rainy morning.
Statelicensed harbor pilots, with little to do since no tankers were allowed in port, ran reconnaissance missions in their swift speedboats around the tanker, giving the Coast Guard routine reports on the tanker and the spill.
The Exxon Baton Rouge maneuvered into position near the Exxon Valdez. And everyone waited for Alyeska.
A SURPRISE CONCERNAt first light Friday, about 6 a.m., Alyeska's O'Donnell flew over the tanker in a helicopter. The oil slick's growing hand of death had spread for miles.
Although the contingency plan calls for using booms to contain oil from leaking tankers and certainly state and federal officials expected that to happen O'Donnell felt compelled to ask those on the tanker if they wanted to be boomed.
To his astonishment, O'Donnell said, an Exxon official on the ship said no.
"We asked at first light that morning if the tanker wanted to be boomed and they said no. They were really concerned about the vapors."
At some point during the first few days of the spill, a story began circulating that booming the ship would have trapped volatile fumes close to the vessel. The fumes could have been set off and the ship and its occupants blown to bits.
That reason for not booming the ship came as a surprise to DEC officials, who said no one had ever raised that concern in years of devising and refining contingency plans. They pointed out that Alyeska routinely booms all tankers once they tie up at the berths.
Beverly Michaels, an Alyeska spokeswoman who tried to find out more information on the issue, said she was told the booms would be opened and the oil allowed to escape if there were ever a huge spill at a berth.
Some suspected the "gasification" issue was just an excuse for the slow response.
"All they're doing is covering their ass," commented the DEC's Lawn.
Exxon Shipping Co. President Frank Iarossi, testifying under oath last week at a congressional hearing, also was surprised that vapors were being given as the reason for not booming the ship. Although he acknowledged talking about gasification at an early press conference, he said he was misquoted in a Washington Post story that made much of the issue. Iarossi insisted he talked about vapors generally in response to a question, but that he never said the spill around the Exxon Valdez shouldn't be boomed because it would endanger the ship.
O'Donnell recalled it was Exxon that kept his booms away from the ship. Someone on the ship he doesn't know who told him: "This thing's like a bomb."
Iarossi could only be sure that "corporate management" didn't tell Alyeska not to boom the ship. He didn't know whether anyone on the tanker had given such an order.
Out on the ship, Coast Guard officer Falkenstein denied one Alyeska request to boom off the vessel because it was made shortly before the Baton Rouge was to maneuver alongside. The booms would then have been in the way, McCall later said.
By the time Alyeska got its equipment out to the scene, in midafternoon, oil had stopped leaking from the tanker. Falkenstein suggested Alyeska try to find the leading edge of the slick and stop it, McCall told a congressional committee.
O'Donnell said Alyeska asked again at 8:30 p.m. Friday, after the Baton Rouge was alongside, if Exxon wanted the ship boomed and Exxon still said no.
Then, Saturday morning at 9 a.m., Alyeska was ordered by Exxon to boom the tankers, O'Donnell said.
Late Friday afternoon, the skies above the Exxon Valdez were filled with airplanes and helicopters carrying state, local and federal officials and reporters, photographers and television camera crews. All reported they saw no cleanup operation anywhere near the disabled tanker.
O'Donnell said that was because his crews were six or seven miles away, trying to turn the leading edge of the oil and keep it away from nearby beaches.
Theo Polasek, Alyeska's vice president of operations, told congressmen weeks later that Alyeska's strategy was to hold the slick in deep water where the company thought chemical dispersants would be used to sink and scatter the oil. Dispersants were never used, except for some tests, and the oil continued on its way through the Sound as Alyeska turned the cleanup over to Exxon.
O'Donnell readily admits the stateapproved contingency plan wasn't adequate to deal with an oil spill like the Exxon Valdez accident. The plan tried to address a much slower, much easier to control spill from a tanker that crashed into a rock.
"Honest to God," said O'Donnell, "nobody ever thought this guy would run it up on the rocks at Bligh Reef."
EXXON SENDS ITS EXPERTSIt was still an hour or so before dawn in Houston when Frank Iarossi's phone rang. In Alaska, it was 1:25 a.m., just an hour after Exxon's biggest and newest ship had been ripped open by an Alaska reef.
Even as the $120 million vessel continued to pour its valuable cargo into Prince William Sound, Iarossi began making arrangements to deal with what was clearly a major disaster.
By the time he got to his office three hours later, the Exxon executive had called experts at company operations all over the world to get them moving to the tiny Alaska town of Valdez.
Equipment was being mobilized in San Francisco, Houston and Southampton, England. Exxon's oilspill strike force, which three weeks earlier had rushed to another Exxon tanker accident in Honolulu, was gearing up.
"I picked five people I wanted with me," Iarossi told a congressional subcommittee recently. The six climbed aboard a corporate jet and headed north to Alaska. The rush was on.
At 5:37 p.m. Friday, Iarossi and his contingent landed in Valdez. They went immediately to the terminal and assumed control over much of the oil spill, taking over the lightering operation, the dispersant discussions and public relations from the Alyeska employees, who seemed eager to be rid of the responsibility.
Exxon set up its command post at the Westmark Hotel, which was soon overflowing with state, federal and oil company personnel. By Saturday, Iarossi said, the company had 40 of its top oil spill experts in Valdez.
In Bermuda on Friday, Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski and his wife were at a seminar on South Africa. He stayed there for two more days until a Federal Aviation Administration jet was dispatched from the Midwest to pick him up and take him back to Alaska.
Sen. Ted Stevens wouldn't hear about it for two more days; he was vacationing at a secret Caribbean hideaway with no phone, TV or radio. A messenger brought word of the spill on Monday, he said recently, but he could not arrange for a flight out until Thursday. Alaska's lone congressman, Don Young, first heard of the spill on Friday, when he flew from Washington, D.C., to Seattle to speak to a seafood processors group. Young said he kept in touch with government officials throughout the following week, during which he visited his mother in Meridian, Calif., went with his family to Santa Barbara, spoke to Arco executive in Los Angeles, and picked up a $2,000 honorarium for spending the day at a U.S. Borax mine in Boron.
Out at the ship, Exxon whisked away Hazelwood and Third Mate Gregory Cousins as soon as the corporate officials arrived at the tanker Friday evening.
Joe LeBeau, a DEC official who was on the ship from about 11 a.m. Friday, said Hazelwood and Cousins were "very depressed." Cousins, in particular, he said, seemed so mentally deflated that LeBeau was worried he might take his own life.
"I didn't think he was going to make it through the night," LeBeau said.
Back on shore, a fight was brewing over the use of chemical dispersants, a relatively quick and easy way to sink some of the oil when conditions are right. The issue of chemical cleanup would become a major battleground for weeks, long after the time to use them had passed, giving state, federal and Exxon officials on both sides of the continent much ammunition for fingerpointing and mudslinging.
Exxon chairman Lawrence Rawl later told Fortune Magazine that 50 percent of the oil could have been handled with dispersants, a figure company officials closer to the spill later put at 35 percent.
But Exxon had come to Valdez thinking it would dump tens of thousands of gallons of a dispersant it manufactures Corexit on the slick. One of the five men Iarossi dragged out of bed early Friday morning was Gordon Lindbloom, an Exxon dispersant expert. Lindbloom rode the corporate jet to Valdez with Iarossi.
About 6 a.m. Saturday, a plane outfitted with equipment to spray large quantities of dispersant arrived in Anchorage from Florida. Exxon, Iarossi said, was ready to unleash the chemical.
Instead, he told congressmen in Valdez last week, the company was confronted with a reluctant Coast Guard commander, who wanted them to first test the chemical in small amounts.
Tests were conducted Saturday and again Sunday. At first, according to the Coast Guard, the weather was too calm, the seas to flat to provide the agitation needed to make the dispersants work.
The Sunday demonstration was "spectacular," Iarossi said. The Coast Guard, other federal agencies and the state finally agreed to allow the chemical and, at 6:45 p.m. that night, gave Exxon the goahead for fullblown dispersant use in a less environmentally sensitive area of the Sound.
But it was too late.
On Monday, winds gusted up to 50 mph, grounding aircraft and chasing boats and skimmers to shelter in port or secluded coves. The rough weather lasted two days, rendering men and machines impotent.
With nothing much to do, Dave Kennedy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oil spill coordinator, sat in the Westmark Valdez hotel restaurant. His oil slick spotters couldn't fly, so no one could tell where the crude was going.
"We've started to call the last three days, "The good ol' days,' " Kennedy said.
On Day 4, Nature had taken over. Any chance of containing the largest oil spill in U.S. history was lost forever.
Iarossi stayed 15 days in Valdez. In that time, Exxon got two things accomplished it got the rest of its oil off the disabled tanker, and it refloated the vessel. Exxon Shipping proved it could do what the company was designed to do, move oil and tankers.
Cleaning up a mess proved much more difficult for the company. While men and equipment were bought and paid for, state and federal officials continually berated Exxon for its lethargic efforts to mop up the spilled oil. The criticism continues even now.
"We're going to shine a very, very intense light of scrutiny on this system," U.S. Rep. George Miller, DCalif., promised last week after a committee he chairs listened to Alyeska and Exxon explain what went wrong on March 24. "I'll be damned if we're going to accept the assurances of the past."
Daily News reporters Larry Campbell and David Whitney contributed to this story.
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