For the first time since he radioed that the Exxon Valdez had "fetched up hard aground" on Bligh Reef five years ago, Capt. Joe Hazelwood on Tuesday began his public reckoning of his role in the disaster and of his bouts with alcohol. Speaking as one of the first witnesses called by the attorneys suing him and Exxon in U.S. District Court, Hazelwood described the two-faced life he led during the years leading up to the spill: drinking at sea, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous at home.
In slow, deliberate speech, Hazelwood said many Exxon officials knew he was drinking, but had they asked for details or probed, "I probably would have slammed the door in their face."
"I thought it was a private matter," he said.
Hazelwood testified for about four hours Tuesday until adjournment interrupted his narrative. He left off as he was about to recount his shore visit to Valdez on March 23, 1989 the day before the worst oil spill in U.S. waters. He is scheduled to resume testifying this morning, when Exxon lawyers will have an opportunity to cross-examine him.
Over the years, Hazelwood's lawyers have been quick and vocal to defend him, but he himself has maintained a stoic silence in the face of relentless questioning, criticism and the sarcastic humor of late-night television. He didn't testify when government officials conducted hearings into the disaster in Anchorage in 1989 because he was facing criminal charges. And he declined to take the stand in his own defense in state court in 1990 when he was tried on charges of operating a vessel while drunk and negligently discharging oil.
Hazelwood was acquitted of the more serious drunkenness charge and is appealing his misdemeanor conviction for negligence.
Though the criminal trial is behind him, he is a key defendant in the civil lawsuits in federal and state courts in which thousands of plaintiffs are seeking billions of dollars in damages. His history as a mariner for Exxon, and Exxon's role in supervising him, are as much an issue in the case as are the events in the moments just before the spill occurred.
The courtroom was packed for Hazelwood's testimony. Many spectators had arrived at 6:30 a.m. to nab one of the 100 seats in the courtroom.
Brian O'Neill, lead trial attorney for the plaintiffs, began by asking Hazelwood about his beginnings in the shipping business.
Hazelwood said he graduated from New York Maritime College in 1968 and went to work for Humble Oil Co., which later became Exxon. He worked his way up the chain of command, but by 1985 he was approaching a mid-life crisis.
He said he looked around and realized he had missed a large part of his daughter's growing up, there were some difficulties in his 22-year-old marriage, and he was drinking more and more.
He found he could drink four or five "doubles," or mixed drinks, before dinner, wine with dinner, then a couple more "doubles" after the meal and still not feel "blotto."
Finally, a fellow captain mentioned that he needed to straighten up, Hazelwood said. That same day, he took a leave from work and admitted himself to a treatment center in New York.
After 28 days, he was released and advised not to drink. During the next 90 days, he attended 90 Alcoholic Anonymous meetings and participated in an "after-care" program, Hazelwood said. His wife attended Al-Anon meetings for family members of recovering alcoholics.
He stuck with AA, he said, but quit going to the after-care meetings.
"My primary reason for dropping out was the people in the group had an overwhelming obsession with drinking," Hazelwood said. For the next nine months or so, Hazelwood didn't drink. He also revealed to one of his bosses that prior to treatment, he had returned to ships drunk.
Hazelwood said he was never reprimanded, but Exxon medical officials had talked to his doctors about his treatment. By late summer of 1985, Hazelwood returned to work. He took over as commander of the Exxon Yorktown and was sent to sea for a 99-day tour.
By the spring of 1986, he started drinking again. It began with a couple glasses of wine at a Florida port. After that he was in Philadelphia and had drinks with other crew members. He began attending AA meetings when at home, but drinking while at sea. He lived this dual life for the next three to four years. He said Exxon managers had glimpses of his drinking.
Sometime between 1985 and 1987, when Hazelwood was in charge of the Exxon Yorktown, the vessel ran aground, according to a line of questions O'Neill began to pursue. But O'Neill was interrupted by objections from Hazelwood's attorney, and Judge Russel Holland cut O'Neill off.
By the fall of 1987, Hazelwood was reassigned as captain of the Exxon Valdez. During the next two years, there were a couple more occasions when allegations that he had been drinking aboard ship were reported to his bosses, Hazelwood said.
Earlier in the day, two witnesses, including a former bartender at the Pipeline Club in Valdez, testified that they had seen Hazelwood in the bar early on the afternoon of March 23. Hazelwood insisted that his first visit to the club wasn't until much later in the day.
Though the focus of Hazelwood's testimony was on his years as an Exxon employee, he also told how he parted with the company several days after the spill.
Hazelwood said he learned from listening to a radio news program that he had been fired.
"No one at Exxon told me about it," Hazelwood said. "I was angry."
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