Exxon Valdez - Legacy of a Spill

May 13, 1999

Legacy of a Spill: Stories | Illustrations | Photos

The helmsman: Robert Kagen

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The hand on the wheel of the Exxon Valdez as it approached Bligh Reef belonged to Robert Kagan, a 15-year veteran of the Exxon fleet who began his maritime career as a mess hand, cleaning rooms and serving dinner.

Kagan later was licensed to steer tankers, but supervisors and other crew said he was shaky at the helm, and Kagan conceded he had a tendency to "chase the compass."

Shortly after midnight on March 24, 1989, Kagan failed to execute an ordered course correction that would have directed the Exxon Valdez safely past the reef and instead put her aground.

Kagan retired in 1995 after 20 years with Exxon and lives in Louisiana. He has worked as an able-bodied seaman aboard a casino boat and sailed on an oil spill cleanup vessel based in Virginia. "I'm looking for something right now to sustain my retirement," he said, and hopes to land a job on deep sea voyages.

People still ask about the spill, he said, but lawyers have told him not to discuss it.

At Hazelwood's criminal trial, Kagan testified about the events leading to the grounding, and his attempts to follow Hazelwood's orders after the tanker was impaled on Bligh Reef. At the end of the ordeal, Kagan said, his captain had commended him.

Another bridge officer testified that what Kagan interpreted as praise more likely was an attempt at sarcasm. Hazelwood's words: "Damn fine job, Bob."

- Don Hunter

Legacy of a Spill: Stories | Illustrations | Photos

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