Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board are considering the possibility the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef March 24 while trying to sneak through a half mile wide passage between that well charted hazard and nearby Reef Island.
Navigation experts said it would be crazy to put a 987 foot tanker through the old steamship passage that runs there, but they acknowledged that such a maneuver is possible. They compare it to flying a plane under San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, a dangerous stunt that has been performed more than once.
Drucella Andersen, a spokeswoman for the NTSB in Valdez, said investigators consider it a "remote possibility" that the tanker was trying to shoot the gap between Reef Island and Bligh Reef, but they are investigating the possibility.
"We have thought of that," she said.
Exxon officials refused comment.
"We're simply not commenting anymore on just what the crew was doing," said spokesman Tom Cirigiliano.
Navigation experts said it is unthinkable that someone would try to take a tanker through the narrow gap, but they said such a maneuver would help explain the position of the grounded ship. The ship hit the northeast corner of the Bligh Reef shoal and eventually came to a stop atop the reef.
It sits more than 11|2 miles from the designated tanker lane, but only a short distance west of the old steamship passage. Water depths in the passage range from 84 feet to more than 180 feet sufficiently deep for the tanker, which draws 641|2 feet when fully loaded. The passage is only slightly narrower than the gap between Middle Rock and the shoreline in Valdez Narrows, a shallow water hazard negotiated daily by tankers.
"You could go through there," said John Denham, a California Maritime Academy instructor, of the Reef Island passage. "A guy could take a ship through there."
"You gotta be a cowboy to do that. You don't have any room for error at all."
The shortcut through the old steamship passage would cut about an hour from a tanker's voyage.
Denham has traveled the Alaska tanker route aboard the Exxon North Slope. He is a former captain and pilot with 47 years shipping experience, including 30 years in the U.S. Navy during which he served as master aboard the USS Sacramento.
He said the grounding of the Exxon Valdez baffles him. U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Yost and other mariners have expressed similar sentiments.
The normal tanker lane offers so much maneuvering room it is difficult to believe that a ship could stray so far from it to run aground accidentally, Yost said.
"This was not a treacherous area," Yost has said. "It's 10 miles wide. Your children could drive a tanker up through it."
"I can't conceive of a ship running aground on Bligh Reef," Denham said.
How the ship could accidentally slip into the entrance of the steamship passage before running aground puzzles navigators even more.
Since the tanker ran aground March 24, attention has focused on the activities of Capt. Joseph Hazelwood, who turned command of the ship over to thirdmate Gregory Thomas Cousins and went to his cabin some time after the ship left Port Valdez. Tests given to Hazelwood nine hours after his ship grounded showed him with a bloodalcohol level of .061, above the federal limit of .04 for operating a ship. He was fired by Exxon and has been charged by the state with operating the ship while under the influence of alcohol.
Cousins was not certified to pilot a ship through Prince William Sound, but he was qualified to run the ship at sea. His license had only two months earlier been upgraded by the Coast Guard from third mate to second mate, although he was still employed by Exxon as a third mate.
Denham said Cousins should have been capable of steering the ship safely out of the Sound, although that would be illegal.
He was in charge of the Exxon Valdez the night it turned due south out of the designated tanker lanes in Prince William Sound and headed on a course that aimed it toward Reef Island.
According to the NTSB and the Coast Guard, the ship was given permission to move from the outbound tanker lane into the inbound tanker lane to avoid ice, but it neither requested nor was it given permission to leave the lanes altogether.
After the Exxon Valdez was given permission to turn due south, it sailed on that course for 19 or 20 minutes, covering a distance of 31|2 or 4 miles. It passed through the separation zone between the tanker lanes, through the northbound lane and into waters near Busby Island, according to the NTSB.
Ten minutes should have been enough time to go from one lane to the other.
Near Busby Island, according to NTSB investigator William Woody, the ship began a series of gentle turns to the right. Woody has interviewed helmsman Robert Kagan and reviewed courserecording equipment from the boat. Hazelwood and Cousins have refused to talk to investigators.
To slip safely through the passage there, Denham said, a tanker would have to sail due south from the tanker channel and then turn right onto a course of 220 degrees.
According to the NTSB, the helmsman of the Exxon Valdez claims the ship steamed due south until it turned onto a course of 235 or 245 degrees. Such a course should have taken the tanker close along the west side of Bligh Reef.
Shortly thereafter, Woody said, Kagan was ordered to go hardright rudder and the ship began a "bumpy ride."
Investigators said the starboard or right side of the ship hit the inside edge of the Bligh Reef shoal, about a mile and a half northeast of the Bligh Reef light.
Either Cousins or Hazelwood then ordered a hard left, Woody said. A hard left would have put the ship into the deep water of the old steamship passage.
But the order of hard left was quickly followed by an order of hard right, according to Woody. The ship ended aground, pointed almost directly west.
It is unclear who gave the last orders. Hazelwood had returned to the bridge, but it is unclear when he got there, Woody said. Hazelwood is also accused of being intoxicated at that time.
"The captain gave a series of orders of right and left rudder. We do not know the purpose of these orders," Woody said.
Rumors have persisted in Valdez for years that tankers have slipped between the island and the reef in the past, but not one reliable witness has been found who ever saw a tanker make such a maneuver.
Jim Lethcoe, a resident of Valdez who teaches marine navigation, said he could not believe anyone would try to put a tanker through the old steamship passage.
"I've heard the rumor," he said. "I can't believe it. It would be an insane thing to do, but it could be done. If they hit on the starboard side first, they had to be in that channel. The theory explains a lot."
As hard as it is to believe that someone tried to put a tanker through the passage, Lethcoe said, it is even harder to believe the grounding was a simple accident. The seas were calm and visibility was good on the night of the accident, and the Exxon Valdez bristles with sophisticated navigation equipment.
Among other things, it has LORAN (a longrange navigation system) that can pinpoint within yards exactly where it is on the sea, and it has two radars that tell the distance to the shoreline and all of the charted dangers.
Denham said the tanker is one of the most modern and even without that equipment the crew should have been able to tell where the ship was based on navigation lights in the Sound.
A flashing red light on Busby Island would have shown astern of the Exxon Valdez as it moved toward Reef Island. The light flashes white when seen from any of the normal tanker channels. The appearance of the red light would offer an immediate warning the ship had strayed far from the standard tanker route.
"How could they make a mistake of this magnitude?" Lethcoe asked. Instead of assuming Cousins made a huge mistake, he said, it is easier to believe he was trying to navigate the tanker through the old steamship passage and made a minor error that put the vessel aground.
"That's taking a real chance, but you could do it," Lethcoe said. "It's wide enough. It's deep enough. It's hard to explain any other way."
Daily News reporters Doug O'Harra and David Hulen contributed to this story.
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