On the night of March 23, it was business as usual in the Prince William Sound community of Valdez, and most of the business had to do with oil.
The tanker Exxon Valdez was pulling away from the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. terminal in Valdez, bound for California with 53 million gallons of North Slope crude aboard.
Across the water from the terminal, Alyeska was holding its annual safety awards banquet in the Valdez Civic Center. The revelers could have looked out the windows and seen the bright yellow glow of the terminal and the lights of the tanker as she moved slowly west toward the Valdez Narrows.
Down at the city council chambers, about 30 Valdez residents were meeting to discuss oil and its impact on the town. The featured speaker was Riki Ott, biologist, member of The Cordova fisherman's union, environmentalist and wellknown critic of Alyeska and its environmental policies.
Bad weather had grounded Ott in Cordova, so she spoke to the group over a speaker phone. It was nearly 11 p.m. when she took up the subject of what would happen if there was a major oil spill.
"Gentlemen, it's not what if," declared Ott, "but when."
"When," as it turned out, was in less than two hours. Shortly after midnight, the Exxon Valdez tore itself open on Bligh Reef, and some 11 million gallons of oil gushed into Prince William Sound.
It was more oil than anyone could hope to corral; more oil than anyone could even fathom at first. The most oil ever to be spilled in U.S. waters. Thick, black, nasty and deadly, it spread out to coat island shores on the west of the Sound and ooze into the Gulf of Alaska, fouling shorelines and killing marine life hundreds of miles away.
QUESTIONS REMAIN UNANSWERED
To date, no one has explained the full details of how and why the disaster happened. The National Transportation Safety Board holds hearings this week, but it won't produce a final report until later this year.
Still, those hearings, scheduled to begin Tuesday, may fill some gaps remaining in the tale of the wreck of the Exxon Valdez: Why did Capt. Joe Hazelwood leave his vessel in the hands of his unqualified third mate, Gregory Cousins? Why was the ship steered onto a collision course with the well-charted, well-known and well-lit Bligh Reef? What kind of traffic system leaves a 987-foot long tanker, brimming with crude oil, unmonitored and on its own in an area dotted with reefs, rocks and icebergs?
Hazelwood, facing criminal charges in Alaska, won't have to testify at the hearing and risk incriminating himself. But the other key actors on the bridge that night will, said board spokeswoman Drucella Andersen. They include Harry Claar and Robert Kagan, the helmsmen who made the turns ordered by Hazelwood and Cousins, as well as lookouts Maureen Jones and Paul Radtke.
The Valdez, built in 1986, was the oil company's newest vessel and one of its two largest. The ship joined a long line of tankers that, for a dozen years now, have brought oil from the rich reserves of Prudhoe Bay to Lower 48 refineries.
Hazelwood, at 42, was one of the industry's youngest and fastest-rising masters. He went to work for Exxon shortly after graduating from the State University of New York Maritime College.
In his 20-year career with the company, the Huntington, N.Y., native had climbed quickly in the ranks to command the fleet's jewel. He had mastered tankers to and from the pipeline's spigot for a dozen years.
Exxon itself was, and remains, the nation's biggest oil company, with $22.2 billion in revenues in just the first quarter of this year. Industry analysts say while the company is profitable, it has also undertaken a string of cost-cutting measures in the last two years under the leadership of chairman and chief executive Lawrence Rawl.
Before its fateful voyage to Alaska in March, the Valdez and her crew were in San Francisco Bay, unloading Alaska crude for Exxon's refinery in Benicia, a small town northeast of the Bay. The vessel had pulled into San Francisco on March 10, a Friday, according to Terry Hunter of the industry-supported Marine Exchange of the San Francisco Bay Region.
The following Monday, about 4 p.m., the Valdez left San Francisco for Prince William Sound. But six hours later, the ship turned back. According to Coast Guard officials and Steve MacLachlan, the Bay pilot who guided it back in, the vessel had problems with one of the two turbochargers on its main diesel engine.
The Valdez anchored south of the Oakland Bay Bridge and was repaired. It left again the following Saturday, March 18, about 8 a.m. The pilot who guided it out, Wally Campbell, said the Valdez steered fine, had good power and was a good vessel.
The Valdez was finally under way, but five days behind schedule. Exxon spokesman Les Rogers said the delay did not prompt company officials to push the Valdez and her crew to make up the lost time.
A NIGHT IN VALDEZ
The tanker arrived at the Alyeska terminal just before 11 p.m. on March 22, four days later, tying up during a spell of fog and drizzle that would last until after it left. Alyeska and Exxon officials said the tanker was on schedule, albeit a schedule readjusted for the five-day delay.
According to NTSB investigators, Hazelwood, Cousins and helmsman Kagan left the vessel and went into its namesake town. Chief Mate James Kunkel stayed aboard; it was his responsibility to load 52.9 million gallons of crude. What the rest of the crew did hasn't been disclosed; Exxon won't say.
Some of what Hazelwood did while in Valdez has been reported, or at least alleged, by various investigators and witnesses.
Starting at about 7 p.m. March 23, Hazelwood had three or four drinks at a bar popular with tanker crews, according to state Attorney General Douglas Baily.
Ron French, a Valdez cab driver, got a call at 8:10 p.m. to go to the Club Valdez, on the waterfront. The bartender said someone needed a cab to the Alyeska terminal in 20 minutes or so, as soon as a pizza was done at the restaurant next door to the club.
French said he pulled up to the Club Valdez at about 8:30 and three men got into the cab carrying two or three pizzas. He took them to the Exxon Valdez, stopping on the way to pick up a fourth man who went to an ARCO tanker.
To French, none of the Exxon sailors appeared drunk ‹ they weren't slurring words or being obnoxious. French thought one of the men acted as if he were in charge, but in an interview later in which he was shown a picture of the Exxon captain, he said he didn't recognize any of them as Hazelwood.
But, otherwise, they sound like the four men who were logged through the Alyeska security gate that night. Hazelwood, three companions, and an order of pizza arrived at the gate by taxicab at 8:24 p.m., according to Alyeska spokesman Tom Brennan. He wouldn't identify the people who arrived with Hazelwood or the cab driver.
EXXON VALDEZ HEADS SOUTH
According to spokesmen from Alyeska, loading a tanker takes between 18 and 24 hours. The Valdez was under way at 9:26 p.m., March 23, about 22 1/2 hours after it arrived. The destination was Long Beach, Calif., about five and a half days away.
Ed Murphy, the local pilot, had the conn ‹ he was in charge of directing the ship's course. He smelled liquor on Hazelwood's breath, he later told the NTSB, but the captain seemed fit and focused as they cruised out of the harbor, through Valdez Narrows and into the north end of Prince William Sound.
The winds were calm and it was still foggy as the tanker headed west along the sausage-shaped body of water known as Port Valdez. A weather observer at the Coast Guard station across from the Alyeska terminal recorded low clouds, with visibility at four miles in snow and fog, just before and just after the tanker pulled out.
But the weather improved as the Valdez got farther from port. The forecast for Prince William Sound proper called for east winds at 15 mph and 3-foot seas, but no snow, rain or fog. At 12:38 the next morning, Hazelwood reported the weather at Bligh Reef as drizzle, visibility 10 miles, north winds at 10 mph, and slight seas.
In the Coast Guard radar room, civilian radarman Gordon Taylor was standing watch. The radar room sits atop the threestory Coast Guard building near the City of Valdez port. The room is dimly lit, the better to watch the three scopes radarmen are responsible for.
Taylor has refused to be interviewed, because the Coast Guard told him not to. He is scheduled to testify at the NTSB hearings this week.
But a vessel data sheet on the Exxon Valdez, filled out by Taylor, shows he was doing his job watching the bright orange ring on the radar scope that represented the tanker as it pulled away from the terminal.
The state ferry Bartlett was the only other ship in the Coast Guard's Vessel Traffic System as the Exxon Valdez left port. The Bartlett was in Valdez Narrows when the tanker sailed, but was out of the Narrows by 9:48 and docked 40 minutes later.
At 10:17 p.m., the Valdez passed a landmark called Entrance Island and turned into the three-mile-long chute known as the Valdez Narrows, slowing to the speed limit of six knots imposed on laden tankers.
A mile into the Narrows, the Valdez eased past what until then was thought to be the worst hazard on the Prince William Sound tanker route: Middle Rock, which divides the Narrows in half and shrinks the width of the ship channel to less than a mile.
By 10:49 ‹ just about the time Riki Ott was warning that a major oil spill was a matter of "when," not "if" ‹ the Valdez was out of the Narrows and increasing speed for the run across Prince William Sound to Cape Hinchinbrook, where outbound tankers enter the Gulf of Alaska.
The ARCO Juneau, which had left port at 4:50 p.m., 4 1/2 hours before the Valdez, had reported that ice from Columbia Glacier was floating in the tanker lanes, and the Exxon vessel asked for a status report.
The Coast Guard operator radioed back that "numerous small pieces of ice" were in the lanes and reported what the Arco tanker had done to avoid it.
"They had to deviate over into the northbound lane for about a half an hour," the operator said.
From the Valdez's position at the mouth of the Narrows, the early part of the tanker route ‹ the only part it would complete ‹ ran southwest. On the right, the shore roughly paralleled the tanker lane, sweeping away to Point Freemantle in a line unbroken by bays or islands, and backed by steep forested slopes.
On the left, where the Valdez would stray, bays and channels alternated with islands and headlands, and the area was dotted with buoys and marker lights to warn sailors away from the dangerous shore and the rocks and shoals beneath the dark water's surface.
HAZELWOOD TAKES OVER
Around 11:25 p.m., the Valdez passed Rocky Point, six miles out of the Narrows, and Ed Murphy's job was done. Third Mate Cousins escorted him from the bridge. A small pilot boat pulled up alongside the Valdez, Murphy climbed onto it, and the fate of the tanker was in Hazelwood's hands.
The captain made his first radio call of the night.
"Judging by our radar, I will probably divert from, ah, the TSS (Traffic Separation Scheme) and end up in the inbound lane if there's no conflicting traffic," Hazelwood said.
By 11:31, Hazelwood was about seven miles out of the Narrows. The Busby Island light was ahead and to his left; the next light on that side marked Bligh Reef, 14 miles from the Narrows. He called the Coast Guard again to say he was leaving the outbound lane.
"I'm going to alter my course to two-zero-zero (degrees) and reduce speed (to) about 12 knots to wend my way through the ice," Hazelwood said. "Once we're clear of the ice out of Columbia Bay, we'll give you another shout."
About 11:40 p.m., radarman Bruce Blandford came in for his regular shift at the Coast Guard station, relieving Taylor. Taylor told Blandford where he thought the Valdez was and why. Taylor left the station and went home about quarter of midnight.
Blandford was doing his daily chores changing audio tapes on the machine that records radio and telephone traffic, setting up data logs while waiting for the Valdez to call and say it was leaving the northbound lane.
But Hazelwood didn't call again until 12:27 a.m., March 24.
56 MINUTES OF SILENCE
Exactly what happened during those 56 minutes of radio silence is still unknown. It will likely be a main focus of this week's safety board hearing.
Here is a summary of what has been reported so far by investigators involved with the case.
Within five minutes of Hazelwood's 11:31 p.m. call ‹ when he said he was turning to a course of 200 degrees ‹ the ship took up a course of 180 degrees, or due south, according to NTSB investigator William Woody. That course put the Valdez on a path just east of Bligh Reef, about six miles ahead in the darkness.
At 11:50, lookout Maureen Jones came on watch, relieving Paul Radtke. Within minutes, she twice warned the bridge that the Bligh Reef light was off to the ship's right, according to the safety board. If the ship had been in safe waters, the light would have been to its left.
At 11:55 p.m., the tanker made another turn, according to Woody. By that time, Hazelwood had gone below to his cabin, turning the conn over to Cousins, who wasn't certified to pilot the ship north of Bligh Reef. Helmsman Claar had been relieved by Kagan.
The ship took up a heading of about 240 degrees, Woody said, pointing it back toward safe waters.
But it was too late, and the vessel gashed itself open on Bligh Reef a few minutes later. Hazelwood returned to the bridge just before or during the grounding and gave the last few commands, according to Woody, but he was too late to save the ship.
The NTSB puts the time of the grounding at 12:04 a.m., although Hazelwood's lawyer has said it was 12:16.
At 12:27, Hazelwood radioed the first report of the disaster to the Coast Guard.
"We've fetched up hard aground north of Goose Island off Bligh Reef," Hazelwood said in a deep, slow voice. "Evidently we're leaking some oil."
Coast Guard Cmdr. Steve McCall, captain of the Valdez port, was rousted from bed and got to the Valdez Coast Guard office in about 10 to 15 minutes. He called in the state and was briefed on what was known about the grounding by Blandford and a radio man on duty.
Then he called the tanker to talk to the captain. He didn't know who the captain was until Hazelwood identified himself over the radio.
McCall's first concern was over Hazelwood's reports that he was trying to move the tanker off the reef. Assuming a vessel is hard aground on a reef, shoal or other rocky bottom, mariners routinely assume there has been some serious damage done to the hull, particularly if the ship hit at a good speed. So, trying to wrest the vessel off the reef risks sinking or rolling over.
"In my opinion, if it would have slid off the reef it would have sunk," he said.
Hazelwood finally abandoned his efforts, though, and left the tanker to sit.
In the days afterward, investigators would reveal that several people reportedly saw Hazelwood drinking in a Valdez bar before setting sail. One of the witnesses said the captain appeared to have trouble keeping his balance on the ship's bridge; others said he never appeared intoxicated, according to paperwork filed with state criminal charges against Hazelwood.
In the first two days, there was confusion over alcohol tests administered to the ship's crew. The Coast Guard first said that there was "probable cause" to administer the test to Hazelwood meaning there was suspicion that he was drinking then said the test was administered routinely.
Then, a week after the spill, NTSB investigators announced that Hazelwood's blood alcohol level measured about 10 hours after the accident was .061 percent, well above the .04 percent allowed for vessel masters under Coast Guard regulations. Exxon fired him the same day. He now faces state misdemeanor charges of operating a watercraft while intoxicated, reckless endangerment and dumping oil, and a state grand jury is investigating more serious charges.
Murphy, the pilot, is one of several defendants named in a lawsuit filed by a group of fishermen over the spill. They contend that Murphy knew, or should have known, that Hazelwood was too drunk to run the Valdez safely.
McCall's investigators failed to search Hazelwood's quarters, or to obtain blood or breath samples from him, until about 9:30 a.m. Friday. That delay could make it difficult for state prosecutors, as well as accident investigators, to determine if he was drunk at the time of the grounding.
Hazelwood told Alaska State Trooper Mike Fox he had only one beer in town before reboarding his ship, then drank a lowpercent alcohol beverage in his cabin afterward.
The NTSB has identified alcohol abuse and the adequacy of the Coast Guard's efforts to deal with the problem as issues to be explored at this week's hearing.
NO WARNING WAS ISSUED
The question of why the Coast Guard didn't warn the Valdez of her peril is another issue the NTSB will probably explore in the hearings this week.
The Bligh Reef area is marked on the Coast Guard's radar scopes in Valdez by a bright orange ring, and the nearby tanker lanes appear as bright orange lines fanning southwestward across Prince William Sound. But no one on duty that night warned the Valdez that it was out of the lanes and headed for disaster.
McCall maintains that his radar crew was doing what it was supposed to do.
The tracking center is not like an air traffic control center, he said. In keeping with the ancient seagoing tradition that a captain knows what's best for his ship, the Coast Guard gives advice, not orders.
"The ship has a better picture of what's going on around them then we do," he said. "The master always has the last word."
That authority slipped from Hazelwood's hands, though, the moment he shut the tanker's engine down that night. A noxious slick was encircling the hull at the waterline. The Valdez was leaking profusely, 11 million gallons into the dark, silty waters.
McCall had closed the port to tanker traffic, so no others passed the Valdez in the night. Tugs and containment equipment from Alyeska would not arrive for hours. The jewel of the Exxon fleet sat impaled on Bligh Reef, alone in the dark and bleeding.
Daily News reporter Patti Epler contributed to this story.
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