Before it ran aground on Bligh Reef, the Exxon Valdez was a ship operating in widespread violation of company rules, its crew working with little sleep, questionable competence and a measure of confusion, according to information contained in investigative documents made public Tuesday.
According to National Transportation Safety Board investigators, three officers of the Exxon Valdez questioned the capabilities of helmsman Robert Kagan, who was making his first trip as a seaman since 1985. Yet Kagan was put at the wheel of the vessel, and that's where he was when the Valdez's hull was pierced by an underwater pinnacle.
And after the grounding, the master of the vessel, Joseph Hazelwood, told a Coast Guard investigator he erred in turning over the ship to his third mate, Gregory Cousins, who was not licensed to pilot the vessel in those waters.
"He said he was responsible and overestimated the third mate's ship handling ability," Coast Guard investigator Mark Delozier wrote in his report.
At the same time, NTSB documents show, the only independent set of eyes that could have saved the ship from disaster the radar operator at the Coast Guard vessel traffic control center in Valdez was effectively blinded. The operator on duty was away from his radar screen getting coffee and doing routine paperwork for a large part of the time that the Valdez traveled off course, and in any event had his radar set at close range to observe Valdez Narrows, making it impossible to see the ship.
A detailed, technical redesign of the radar that would have enabled simultaneous 24 hour surveillance of both Bligh Reef and Valdez Narrows with existing equipment and at a cost of six hours of a technician's time was proposed in 1987, but never implemented.
The documents that describe conditions of the ship and its crew, the rules they were to follow, and the Coast Guard's operations were among about 950 pages of material made public by the NTSB in conjunction with its hearings in Anchorage on the grounding of the Valdez. The tanker spilled 11 million gallons of North Slope crude oil into Prince William Sound when it struck Bligh Reef shortly after midnight on March 24.
Among the violations apparent in the NTSB papers involves the prohibition of alcohol on a vessel, a rule broken by Capt. Hazelwood himself.
In one graphic tale, radio officer Joel Roberson, making his first journey with Hazelwood, told of being summoned to the captain's office shortly after joining the vessel in late February. Hazelwood wanted to discuss the design of a Tshirt for the ship, then invited him to the ship's lounge "to destroy a bottle."
While several other crew members and officers watched a rock video, Hazelwood pulled a bottle from his jacket and began mixing drinks with orange juice. An unnamed third mate went for ice. Roberson said the liquor was "clear," possibly vodka.
A month later, some 10 hours after ship ran aground, a test of Hazelwood's blood showed its alcohol level to be one and a half times the legal limit.
Aside from alcohol problems, the evidence of mental fatigue runs through several of the interviews and reports in the NTSB documents. Exhaustion and confusion were apparent even before the Valdez set sail from the Alyeska loading dock shortly after 9 p.m. on March 23.
The NTSB investigators tell of the physical strain and stress that loading the tanker placed on the ship's three mates: Chief Mate James R. Kunkel, 37, Second Mate Lloyd LeCain, 41, and Third Mate Gregory Cousins, 39.
Cousins was on duty when the ship arrived in port at 10:45 p.m. March 22.
Once in port, Cousins and LeCain were scheduled to alternate the watch, working six hours on, six off. Chief Mate Kunkel had to be awake to supervise the unloading of the ship's ballast and the taking on of its cargo and fuel.
NTSB human performance investigators Eric Sager and Daniel Raskin said that Cousins got about four hours of sleep after bringing in the ship before he was roused at 5:20 a.m. to assume his watch. He didn't have a chance to nap until around 1:30 p.m. March 24. At 4:30, Kunkel was surprised to see Cousins awake and eating dinner in the mess. An hour before his watch was to officially begin at 6, Cousins relieved Kunkel so the chief mate could have his supper.
Cousins helped supervise the final topping off of the tanks, the stowing of gear and the departure. As tired as he was, he spelled the even more exhausted chief mate at the pilot's house around 9:50 p.m., after the Valdez got under way. Cousins should have been relieved at midnight by Second Mate LeCain, but he let LeCain get some extra rest.
LeCain's sleep was shattered shortly after midnight when the Valdez shuddered and shook and came to rest on the reef. Had he been on duty, LeCain told investigators, he would not have put Kagan at the wheel, substituting lookout Maureen Jones in his place.
According to the NTSB, the history of the Valdez' crew size is marred by mistakes and misinformation.
The Coast Guard allowed Exxon to reduce its crew by three members six months after it was put in service in 1986. But the Coast Guard admitted in a January 1988 letter to the company that the move was an error. But since the ship had not encountered trouble with the smaller crew, the permission was allowed to stand.
The Coast Guard sets the crew requirements based on how well a larger initial crew is handling the vessel, and how much overtime the sailors put in. But Exxon misled the Coast Guard on the amount of overtime its sailors worked, according to the NTSB.
Confusion was also apparent on the Exxon Valdez before it left port. According to the NTSB, Hazelwood had the wrong time for the departure of the vessel and arrived at the dock moments before the ship was to sail.
At 8 p.m., according to an NTSB interview with Chief Mate Kunkel, the ship was loaded and ready to depart. A crew count was conducted, and when it was over, Hazelwood, Chief Engineer Jerzy Glowacki and Radio Officer Roberson were missing. They still hadn't returned to the ship when the harbor pilot boarded a short time later.
The three men had spent the day in Valdez, shopping, eating and drinking. At noon, an hour after they left the ship, a sailing time of 7 p.m. was posted. It was later changed to 9 p.m.
They returned to the ship sometime after 8:30, and Hazelwood dashed into the bridge, still wearing his coat, at 8:55 p.m. Glowacki told the NTSB he had thought the ship would leave at 10.
According to Kunkel, the captain is normally on the bridge throughout the passage through Prince William Sound, and is never absent for more than 10 or 15 minutes. The master is always on the bridge during the passage through Valdez Narrows, he said, when the ship is guided by a harbor pilot.
But Hazelwood left the bridge shortly after the tanker left the dock, and didn't come back up until he was summoned by harbor pilot Ed Murphy. The ship had already transited the Narrows, according to the NTSB.
After Murphy left the Valdez, Hazelwood continued to violate company rules, the documents show.
At 11:30 p.m., Hazelwood radioed the Coast Guard that he would alter his course out of the normal southbound tanker lane to "wind my way through the ice." He told the Coast Guard traffic center he would go on a heading of 200 degrees and reduce his speed to 12 knots.
But the NTSB found that the engine speed continued to increase. About 10 minutes later, he changed course again, this time to 180 degrees, and set the ship on automatic pilot. He didn't report his new heading to the Coast Guard as required.
The crew of the Exxon Valdez violated a several of the standing orders which were supposed to guide their conduct, as well as the rules in a manual all officers had to sign and keep close at hand on the bridge.
A lookout should have been posted continuously, but there was a period during the night of the wreck when there was no lookout, according to the documents and testimony before the NTSB Tuesday.
Under the ship's standing orders, the automatic steering was to be turned off "when navigating close to the shore or near shallow banks," as the Exxon Valdez certainly was. The manual says only under special circumstances is the tanker to come within 20 miles of shore, and only when it must pass through a channel is it to come within five miles. But the automatic steering was on the night of the wreck, when the ship was within two miles of shore.
According to Cousin's testimony before the safety board, he and Hazelwood planned to pass through a ninetenths of a mile wide mile gap between the edge of the ice and the Bligh Reef shoal.
When the ship finally came aground, errors and confusion nearly compounded the disaster.
After the grounding, Hazelwood ordered Chief Mate Kunkel to the cargo control room, where he could read the gauges of the tanks. Hazelwood wanted to know how much oil was lost and whether the ship could maintain its balance.
"He made some calculations and determined that the vessel had positive stability," the NTSB interview notes said. Kunkel believed there was no need for the crew to abandon the ship for the icy waters of the Sound. Hazelwood relied on that information when he decided to try to motor the ship off the reef.
What Kunkel didn't know until later was that one of the key gauges was jammed and was giving a faulty reading. If he had known the truth about the forepeak tank in front of the vessel and the damage it sustained, "his calculations would have revealed that the vessel did not have positive stability; and that the vessel would have capsized and sunk if it had not been supported by the reef."
Chief Engineer Glowacki, in the engine room, didn't feel the bumps or the sudden lack of motion, but saw his controls go haywire. For some reason, the main engine's load indicator was reading much higher than normal. No one thought to tell him what happened until he got a call from the bridge at 12:20 a.m., 16 minutes after the grounding.
Automatic recorders that kept track of engine and course changes on board the Valdez showed that for more than 11|2 hours, Hazelwood made extreme efforts to get off the reef.
After the first impact, according to the automatic engine log, Hazelwood kept the Valdez charging ahead under full power for more than 13 minutes before reducing the power to half ahead, slow ahead, dead slow ahead and stop in less than a minute.
From 12:20 to 12:35 a.m., the ship sat idling. But then, according to the logs, Hazelwood began to power the ship forward in an apparent effort to wiggle his way forward and off the reef.
During the next hour, according to the course recorder, he ordered more than a dozen shifts in the rudder from hard left to hard right and back. Meanwhile, according to the engine log, he was powering the engines up from dead slow to slow ahead to half ahead to full ahead.
For more than 40 minutes, from 12:58 a.m. to 1:40 a.m., according to the engine log, the Exxon Valdez sat on the reef with its engines roaring at full ahead while Hazelwood ordered the helmsman to swing the rudder left and right.
Crewmen who testified at the NTSB hearing on Tuesday said the ship never seemed to move forward, but it did change headings a few times. The testimony is consistent with the Valdez pivoting on the rock on which it was grounded.
Hazelwood finally gave up on his efforts to move off the reef at 1:45 on the morning of March 24, according to the automatic recorders. Nearly an hour and 45 minutes after the Exxon had first gone aground, he finally ordered the engines stopped.
Daily News reporters David Hulen, Craig Medred and Charles Wohlforth contributed to this story.
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