HARD AGROUND - Wreck of the Exxon Valdez - March 24, 1989


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Daily News reporter

Anchorage Daily News
Date: 01/29/90
Day: Monday
Edition: Final
Section: Nation
Page: A1

ANCHORAGE- Until the ship he commanded ran aground 10 months ago, Joseph J. Hazelwood was a skilled sea captain with a good job, a comfortable suburban home in the town he grew up in, and one troubling habit: He drank too much.

Hazelwood climbed steadily up a career ladder that began as a good student in high school and the New York Maritime College, and continued through a quick rise through the ranks of the merchant marine.

At 31, he won a master's license enabling him to command a vessel of any size. At 32, Exxon Shipping Co. made him its youngest captain. At 42, he was captain of the Exxon Valdez, a 987foot tanker the oil company considered the pride of its fleet.

Married in 1969, Hazelwood and his wife, Suzanne, have a teenage daughter. The family lives in an uppermiddle class neighborhood in Huntington, N.Y. Hazelwood is the son of a commercial airline pilot.

Former high school classmates described Hazelwood as a popular student who got good grades. He apparently began drinking while at the maritime college. A former college roommate told Time magazine Hazelwood and other cadets would often celebrate weekends by drinking a case of beer each on Saturdays.

Since the grounding of the Valdez, Hazelwood's reputation as a drinker has obscured his success as a seaman. After the U.S. Coast Guard announced that blood tests performed hours after the grounding showed Hazelwood too drunk to legally command his vessel, Exxon fired him. Comedians seized the image of a drunken captain and turned Hazelwood into a running gag on latenight television.

Hazelwood's problems with alcohol first surfaced publicly in 1982, when he was sued by a young seaman who claimed a drunken Hazelwood struck him. But, until last spring, most of Hazelwood's drinking problems happened while he was behind the wheel of an automobile. Drinking and driving cost Hazelwood his driver's license three times. His license was revoked at the time of the oil spill.

In 1984, police in New York charged him with driving while intoxicated. New York Department of Motor Vehicle records show Hazelwood refused to submit to a blood test and his license was revoked Nov. 2, 1984. He was fined $500.

His license was revoked again Aug. 9, 1985, after another drunk driving arrest. His license was restored May 28, 1986.

Hazelwood's last drunk driving arrest occurred Sept. 13, 1988. The records show he was convicted two days later and his license was revoked Nov. 10, 1988 by New York state.

Testifying before the National Transportation Safety Board in Anchorage last May, Exxon Shipping Co. President Frank Iarossi said the company was unaware of Hazelwood's string of drunkdriving arrests, but the company did know he had a drinking problem.

An Exxon official who tried to reach Hazelwood at home in 1985 instead found him checked into an alcohol rehabilitation program at South Oaks Hospital in Amityville, N.Y., Iarossi told the NTSB. A South Oaks physician's report submitted to the NTSB said Hazelwood had "been depressed and demoralized . . . (and) has been drinking excessively, episodically . . ."

The company gave Hazelwood a 90day leave of absence and suggested that he go to Alcoholics Anonymous, but Iarossi said he did not know if Hazelwood followed the advice.

Exxon didn't take Hazelwood's command from him, but it did assign two counselors to meet with him every time his vessel docked in San Francisco or Long Beach, Calif. The meetings continued until the last voyage, Iarossi said.

Job reviews consistently rated Hazelwood as excellent at the technical details of shiphandling, but said he lacked initiative and failed to follow company policies. Superiors twice recommended Hazelwood be assigned to temporary shore duty. The recommendations were not followed.

Story Index:
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