The captain of the tanker Exxon Valdez was too drunk to legally operate a ship when his blood was sampled, a full nine hours after his tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef, the National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday.
Because the Coast Guard waited so long to collect the blood and urine samples, the NTSB could not say if Capt. Joseph J. Hazelwood was legally under the influence of alcohol when the Valdez became impaled on an charted underwater spire.
Nearly 11 million gallons of oil gushed from the tanker into Prince William Sound on March 24, the worst oil spill disaster in North American history.
The announcement that Hazelwood had been drinking accelerated already ongoing state and federal investigations into the cause of the wreck.
Shortly after the NTSB reported the results, Exxon fired Hazelwood. Exxon President Bill Stevens called the firing of the 20 year employee a "human tragedy."
"We are all extremely disappointed and outraged that an officer in such a critical position would have jeopardized his ship, crew and the environment through such actions," said Frank Iarossi, president of Exxon Shipping Co., in a statement read by Stevens.
Stevens said the company sent a telex to Hazelwood's New York home, notifying him he had been cut loose. Stevens said he did not know where Hazelwood was.
Stevens said Hazelwood was fired because company policy prohibits drinking on board ships or being under the influence of alcohol while on duty.
The U.S. Coast Guard employee who was controlling harbor traffic the night of the accident also tested positive for alcohol. But the lead investigator for the NTSB, William Woody, said Bruce Blandford had drinks after getting off duty and witnesses had said he was not drunk while on duty.
Hazelwood had a blood alcohol count of 0.061. A urine test showed a .09 reading. According to Coast Guard regulations, it is a violation to operate a vessel like a tanker with a blood alcohol level of 0.04 percent or above.
"That's too high to master a vessel like a tanker," said Woody.
Exxon knew four years ago that Hazelwood had a serious drinking problem, Stevens said. In 1985 Hazelwood checked himself into a company sponsored alcohol treatment program and company officials thought he had mastered his problem.
"We must go back and reexamine our policies following rehabilitation. Clearly they are in error," Stevens said.
The Coast Guard said that Hazelwood had failed to disclose two drunken driving convictions when he applied to renew his captain's certificate in 1986.
In Washington D.C., Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jim Simpson said that Hazelwood responded "No" to a question on the renewal form that asked if he has "ever been convicted by any court, including military court, for anything other than a minor traffic violation?"
Drunken driving convictions are not minor traffic violations, Simpson said.
"If they lie on the application, that becomes a fraudulent application and it voids the license," Simpson said.
"The Coast Guard today will initiate a suspension and revocation proceeding," Simpson said.
Simpson said it makes no difference if Hazelwood drank the alcohol before the ship grounded on Bligh Reef or afterward.
"It's really irrelevant," Simpson said. "The master of a vessel cannot be drinking whether he's on duty, off duty, or playing shuffleboard on deck."
If Hazelwood did all his drinking before boarding the ship at 9:30 p.m. Thursday night, his approximate blood alcohol level as the Exxon Valdez left port would have been between .24 and .30 at least six times the Coast Guard's legal limit, according to experts in Anchorage and Seattle.
When the ship ran aground 21|2 hours later, his blood alcohol level would have been about .20, still five times the legal limit.
This degree of intoxication would cause a person to be "severely impaired," said Dr. Michael Propst, a forensic pathologist who testifies frequently in Alaska courts about alcohol and its effects on drinkers.
Because the body burns off alcohol at predictable rates, it is possible to work backwards from blood test results and determine approximate previous levels of intoxication, said Propst and Dave Predmore, a forensic toxicologist with the Washington State Toxicology Laboratory in Seattle.
Estimating Hazelwood's size at 6 feet tall and about 185 pounds, he would have had to drink a minimum of nine or 10 ounces of 86 proof liquor in the hour before he boarded the ship to achieve a .24 reading, Propst said. Or, in a more real life scenario, a much larger amount over a longer period.
A can of beer has the same alcohol content as a shot of hard liquor, Propst said.
Propst's and Predmore's conclusions are based on an assumption as yet unproved that Hazelwood was not drinking aboard the ship. Exxon prohibits alcohol on its tankers.
Hazelwood, 42, of Huntington, N.Y., has a history of alcohol related driving convictions dating back at least to 1984. He has refused to answer questions about when he started drinking in the hours preceding the crash, and when he stopped.
NTSB investigators say he was not on the bridge when the ship headed due south out of established shipping lanes and into an area of rocky reefs. Iarossi has said the Hazelwood was in his cabin, and had left the ship under control of Third Mate Gregory Cousins, 38, of Tampa, Fla. Cousins was not certified to pilot the tanker through the Sound. Alcohol tests on Cousins were negative, as they were on helmsman Robert Kagan of Harohan, La.
The harbor pilot who helped guide the Exxon Valdez out of port and handed command of the vessel to Hazelwood at Rocky Point south of Valdez Narrows said he smelled alcohol on Hazelwood's breath. The first Coast Guard officer who boarded the damaged vessel also detected the odor of alcohol on Hazelwood.
However, both said Hazelwood did not seem to be impaired.
"Unless he's a chronic drinker, you are going to notice it," Predmore said of a person with a .24 reading. But someone with a history of alcohol abuse "might be able to look like he's not in too bad shape."
The average person with a reading of .20 or more would have slurred speech and a stumbling gait, Propst said. "Experienced drinkers learn how to mask symptoms."
Alcoholics usually metabolize alcohol at a faster rate than non alcoholics, Propst said, thus the .24 estimate is a minimum rather than a maximum.
Adm. Paul Yost, commandant of the Coast Guard, lashed out at the operation of the tanker before it ran aground, arguing it should have been child's play for the captain and the crew to navigate in what he described as a wide open swath of open sea.
"Your children could drive a tanker up through it," Yost told reporters at a White House news conference.
"We've got 10 miles of open water there, and for that vessel to have come over and hit a reef is almost unbelievable. This was not a treacherous area. It is not treacherous in the area they went aground."
"The Coast Guard will look into the license of the officers on that vessel," said Yost. "Obviously, something went very badly wrong. We'll need to look at any alcohol use that's been alleged."
Attorney General Richard Thornburgh said the Justice Department has begun a separate investigation to assess potential civil and criminal penalties.
A separate state investigation has focused on the sobriety of Hazelwood and is trying to turn up witnesses who might have seen the captain drinking or under the influence before the Valdez pulled out of the harbor.
"We are still vigorously pursuing different avenues," said Larry Weeks, chief prosecutor for the state of Alaska. "As soon as we feel we have sufficient evidence to charge him, we'll do it. If we don't find sufficient evidence, we want to drop the investigation as soon as possible. It could be a few days or some time."
"We are looking at three areas, possible licensing violations, a possible DWI kind of thing and possible environmental violations of state law," he said.
Alaska prohibits anyone from operating any marine vessel while under the influence of alcohol, a charge that can be prosecuted with certainty when blood tests can scientifically show that a person had .10 percent alcohol in his or her blood while on board, or when witnesses say that the person was obviously impaired.
"If it's .10, it's Katie bar the door, you are guilty. If it's less than .10, you look at the circumstantial evidence for his being under the influence," Weeks said. That kind of evidence would include slurred speech and other signs of intoxication and the failure to properly carry out duties.
Exxon had hired an attorney for Hazelwood. But Thursday night Stevens said the company would reconsider the arrangement.
Woody of the NTSB said his agency had no immediate plans to legally force Hazelwood to talk. He said he believed Hazelwood would cooperate after reviewing the evidence gathered so far with his lawyer.
Woody said a ship radio operator had seen the captain drinking one time before on board ship, although not recently. "He wasn't sure really what it was the captain was drinking. Something that you mix with orange juice."
Pilot Ed Murphy, who accompanied the ship out of Valdez Arm, also told the NTSB that he had smelled alcohol on the captain, but that the captain did not appear to act drunk.
Woody said his investigators had not searched the captain's cabin, and felt it wasn't necessary. He added that a new captain was in the cabin, having moved in almost immediately after Hazelwood was taken off ship.
Daily News reporter Don Hunter contributed to this story.
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