Exxon Valdez Pilot Says He Smelled Alcohol on Hazelwood’s Breath
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ The captain of the Exxon Valdez drank alcoholic beverages with shipmates while ashore before the tanker struck a reef in Prince William Sound, according to documents released by a federal panel.
A stack of documents released by the National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday contained interviews detailing drinking by Capt. Joseph Hazelwood before the ship left Valdez, and on at least one occasion aboard ship.
The panel is investigating the nation’s worst oil spill, caused when the Exxon Valdez hit a reef on March 24 and spilled nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil.
The ship’s chief engineer, Jerzy Glowacki, and its radio officer told investigators they went ashore with Hazelwood as the tanker was being loaded, according to the documents.
Glowacki and the radio officer said Hazelwood and a shipping pilot had non- alcoholic drinks at a restaurant, while the others at the table had beer.
Hazelwood and his crewmen split up to do some shopping and met later at a bar. The radio officer said when he arrived at about 4:30 p.m. March 23, Hazelwood and Glowacki already were there. He said each bought one or more rounds of drinks.
He said Hazelwood drank a clear beverage, Glowacki drank gin and tonic and he drank beer. Glowacki told investigators he had three gin and tonics, but did not recall how much Hazelwood had to drink.
″No further information could be developed concerning the activities of the three men between lunch at the restaurant and their meeting at the bar,″ the documents state.
Glowacki said the three left the bar at about 7 p.m. and returned to the restaurant where they had lunch and ordered two pizzas. Glowacki and the radio officer agreed each of the three men had one alcoholic drink as they waited.
The radio officer also reported seeing Hazelwood drinking aboard ship on one occasion, during a long voyage in February.
According to the documents, Hazelwood admitted drinking non-alcholic beer aboard the vessel on March 24.
On Tuesday , shipping pilot William E. Murphy told the NTSB panel that he smelled alcohol on Hazelwood’s breath before the the March 24 accident, but the captain did not act intoxicated.
Other crewmen told the panel they didn’t notice alcohol on Hazelwood’s breath.
Third Mate Gregory T. Cousins, whom Hazelwood left in charge on the vessel’s bridge, testified Tuesday that the ship had been on automatic pilot until 12 minutes before it ran aground in Prince William Sound.
Cousins, who was not certified to operate the ship, said he could not explain why it was on automatic pilot when Exxon policy limits use of the device to open waters.
Murphy, who helped pilot the tanker through a narrow part of Prince William Sound before the ship hit a charted reef, said that he had a good opinion of Hazelwood’s skill before the accident.
″I would characterize it as outstanding,″ he said.
Hazelwood failed sobriety tests administered about nine hours after the March 24 wreck.
Murphy said Hazelwood smelled of alcohol but spoke clearly and gave no sign of impaired judgment. Cousins and four other crew members agreed that Hazelwood did not seem intoxicated but added that they did not smell any alcohol on the captain.
The witnesses said Exxon has a strict policy against alcohol or drugs on board, and they testified they had never seen the policy violated. They also said they had never had their bags searched for alcohol or drugs.
Cousins said Hazelwood had left the bridge to send out messages from his office. Although leaving an uncertified crewman in charge is against company policy, Cousins said other captains have left him alone at the helm for brief periods.
Murphy, who left the ship about 45 minutes before it ran aground, said he found it unusual that Hazelwood was not on the bridge for much of the time.
Cousins said Hazelwood had ordered the 987-foot tanker out of the normal traffic lanes to avoid ice.
Cousins said he tried to change course back toward the lanes, but the ship did not respond. He tried a sharper turn but the tanker continued toward Bligh Reef.
″It’s a source of trouble for me as to why the vessel did not track away from that track line,″ he said.
Moments before the wreck, Cousins called Hazelwood.
″I said to him at that time, ‘I think we’re in serious trouble.’ At the end of that talk is when I felt the initial shock,″ he said.
″Several seconds passed and we experienced a series of jolts to the vessel. By the time we came to a full stop, I’d estimate we felt a series of six jolts,″ he recalled.
″There seemed to be a hesitation, and I spun the wheel hard left. By that time I believe we were hard aground.″
Cousins said there had been no discussion earlier about reducing speed as it neared the ice. Slowing down would have made the ship harder to maneuver, he said.
The Exxon Valdez was traveling between half and full speed at the time of the accident, according to testimony.
After the grounding, Hazelwood returned to the bridge and ordered crew members to assess the damage. Then he tried to rock the tanker free without success, Cousins said.
″I cannot think of anything I could’ve done differently,″ Cousins concluded.
During the five days of hearings, the panel plans to question more than two dozen witnesses, including Coast Guard personnel and Exxon executives. Hazelwood, who is charged with operating a vessel while drunk, will not testify. The fired captain is free on bail and faces trial June 20 in Valdez.
The panel includes representatives of the state, Exxon, the Coast Guard and Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., a consortium of oil companies that runs the 800- mile trans-Alaska pipeline.
The board’s report on the cause of the accident will take up to a year to complete.