The captain of the grounded tanker Exxon Valdez had his drivers' license suspended or revoked three times for alcohol violations since 1984, according to motor vehicle and arrest records from his home state of New York.
The most recent revocation of Capt. Joseph J. Hazelwood's driving license was still in effect when the Valdez, under his command, ran aground and spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound on Friday.
Among the questions now being asked by investigators is if Hazelwood was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the wreck. According to Alaska Commissioner of Public Safety Art English, the Coast Guard asked a state trooper to check out a report that Hazelwood had been drinking before he boarded the ship Thursday night.
Results of blood samples taken from him, the ship's third mate and a helmsman are expected to be known later this week. However, medical experts have said that the time the samples were taken at least 71|2 hours after the wreck and more than 10 hours after the ship left harbor may make the results inconclusive because of the speed with which alcohol is metabolized by the body.
English said the trooper observed the captain about six hours after the wreck and saw no cause to arrest him for operating a vessel while drunk, a violation of state law.
On Monday, Exxon Shipping Co. President Frank Iarossi said he didn't know of Hazelwood's record and declined to comment further.
Don Cornett, Exxon's Alaska coordinator, added, "I have not personally talked to the captain. But I will remind you, it's not appropriate for us to comment. This is a 20year employee and his career is at stake. And he's being investigated by five agencies."
Iarossi had said at a news conference Sunday that any drinking problem Hazelwood had was in the past.
"One of my people said there was a history more than five years ago," he said in response to a reporter's question. "What happened five years ago is not germane to this incident."
According to Iarossi, the disaster occurred after Hazelwood abandoned the bridge for his cabin and left the Valdez' fate in the hands of an officer who was not certified to pilot through the Sound.
Under Third Mate Gregory Cousins' control, the ship strayed from its shipping lane toward an area of charted reefs, grazing an underwater pinnacle about two miles before grounding on a second reef. Iarossi said it is unclear whether Hazelwood returned to the bridge between the first strike and the second.
According to a Coast Guard licensing officer in Anchorage, Hazelwood was the only officer on the ship licensed to be on watch inside the Sound. While the captain and mates of tankers are generally certified to operate ships at sea, additional "pilot endorsements" are required for an officer to pilot through inland waters such as the Sound.
Why the captain left the bridge is "one of the high points" of the investigation now under way by a fourmember marine accident team from the National Transportation Safety Board, according to team leader William Woody.
On Monday afternoon, the investigators began interviewing Hazelwood and three other crew members to find out why the Valdez wrecked.
Woody said the investigation in Valdez would take at least the rest of this week and will be followed by a public hearing in Anchorage in one to three weeks.
Lt. Cmdr. Richard Blais, chief of licensing for the Coast Guard's Anchorage district, said there is nothing in federal law that calls for a commercial ship captain's license to be automatically suspended or reviewed following criminal convictions, including driving under the influence of alcohol.
New York Department of Motor Vehicle records show that Hazelwood, 42, was arrested for driving while intoxicated on July 21, 1984, after he got into an automobile accident. He refused to submit to a blood test and his license was revoked on Nov. 2, 1984, and he was fined $500.
The records show that Hazelwood had his license revoked again on Aug. 9, 1985, for driving while intoxicated. His license was fully restored on May 28, 1986.
Hazelwood's most recent arrest, according to the records, was Sept. 13, 1988, for driving under the influence. He was convicted two days later, the records show, and his license was revoked by the state on Nov. 10, 1988. The records show he hasn't gotten his license back again.
Hazelwood couldn't be reached for comment. A message left on the answering machine at his home in Huntington, N.Y., was unanswered.
Hazelwood lives with his wife, Suzanne, and their highschool age daughter in a somewhat exclusive upper middleclass community on Long Island, east of New York City. Neighbors described the family as quiet.
"He is away a great deal with his work," said neighbor Jean Warhurst.
"They tend to keep to themselves very much," said Mrs. Robert Ritcey.
The New York Times reported that a Suffolk County police account of the 1984 accident said that Hazelwood was intoxicated when the van he was driving collided with a second vehicle. After leaving his van and yelling at the other driver, the report said, Hazelwood drove away.
When police questioned him in the driveway of his home at 48 Crescent Beach Drive a short time later, the report said, "the defendant had a strong odor of alcoholic beverage on his breath, he was unsteady on his feet and his speech was slurred."
Hazelwood requested a hearing. On Aug. 9, 1985, he pleaded guilty in Suffolk County District Court to driving while intoxicated. A charge of leaving the scene of an accident was dropped.
The Coast Guard routinely does background investigations, including a check of FBI files, on applicants for commercial ship licenses when they first apply, according to Blais. But he said such checks are rarely done when captains and mates renew their licenses, generally every five years. However, the renewal application requires the captain to disclose all court convictions other than minor traffic violations.
"We try to be very careful," Blais said. "If someone comes in with a DWI in 1977 and nothing since, you look at other things and you might say, "OK.' If someone comes in with two or three in the last five years I'd probably say he doesn't deserve a license."
Meanwhile on Monday, the Coast Guard said two of its employees were also given drug and alcohol tests after the ship ran aground. The employees were on duty Thursday night and Friday morning in the Vessel Traffic Center a control room near the Valdez waterfront that resembles a flightcontrol tower.
The Coast Guard employees, whose names had not been released, also will be questioned by the NTSB team, Woody said.
The Coast Guard center routinely helps guide tankers as they come and go near the quartermile Valdez Narrows and in the Valdez Arm.
Besides keeping radio contact with the vessels, the center also is able to track them with two radar stations, one near Valdez and one on Potato Point, near the Narrows.
On Sunday, the Exxon Valdez was visible as a bright ovalshaped dot at the bottom of a radar screen in the control room, clearly outside the shipping lanes, which appear superimposed on the screen.
Coast Guard officials have repeatedly said that the tanker was not being monitored because there were no other ships in the area and there was no danger of a shiptoship collision.
Daily News reporters George Frost and Sheila Toomey contributed to this story.
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