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Witness Says Third Mate Was at Fault For Exxon Valdez Grounding

March 13, 1990

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ An expert witness testified Monday that the Exxon Valdez disaster would not have happened if skipper Joseph Hazelwood had been on the bridge, but insisted Hazelwood didn’t cause the nation’s worst oil spill.

Former tanker captain Shiras Walker, testifying for the defense in Hazelwood’s trial, said he believes the third mate, Gregory Cousins, was responsible for the March 24 grounding of the Exxon Valdez.

Walker also said he believes Hazelwood’s remarks immediately after the grounding were meaningless because ″he was coming apart mentally ... He was telling them what they wanted to hear.″

For that reason, Walker said, he discounted Hazelwood’s remarks that he was trying to move the grounded tanker off jagged Bligh Reef. He said he believed the skipper actually was stabilizing the vessel so it would not float off the reef with the coming high tide.

Walker said his opinions were based on experience commanding similar tankers, declaring, ″I walked several thousand miles in Capt. Hazelwood’s shoes.″

Hazelwood, 43, of Huntington, N.Y., was the only crew member of the Exxon Valdez charged criminally in the wreck, which spilled nearly 11 million gallons of oil.

He is accused of criminal mischief, reckless endangerment, operating a vessel while intoxicated and negligent discharge of oil. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of 7 1/4 years in prison and $61,000 in fines.

″Isn’t it true that if Capt. Hazelwood was on the bridge where he was supposed to be, this wouldn’t have happened?″ Assistant District Attorney Mary Anne Henry asked during cross-examination.

After the judge overruled a defense objection that the question called for speculation, Walker answered: ″I might disagree with that ‘supposed to be’ part. But if Capt. Hazelwood was on the bridge during those maneuvers, this accident wouldn’t have happened.″

Under redirected questioning from the defense, Walker was asked whether he believed Hazelwood’s absence from the bridge contributed to the grounding of the vessel in any way.

″None at all,″ Walker answered.

The former captain told jurors that the only regulation he knows of requiring a captain to be on the bridge is during a transit of the Panama Canal.

In further testimony Monday, Thomas Burr, an alcohol and drug testing consultant from Minneapolis, criticized the conclusions reached by a prosecution expert who said he could tell that Hazelwood was drunk 10 1/2 hours before the skipper was tested for blood alcohol.

Burr said Richard Prouty’s method of calculating backwards, known as ″retrograde extrapolation,″ is unreliable and a subject of controversy in the scientific community.

″It’s very dubious when it’s based on a single chemical test,″ he said. ″In my opinion, it’s not a valid thing to do forensically especially not for such a long period of time. ... There are too many unknown variables.″

Taking Prouty’s calculations to their extreme, Burr said they would have shown that Hazelwood had a .30 blood alcohol reading when he boarded the ship and would have had trouble walking.

Witnesses have said Hazelwood was steady on his feet and except for a telltale smell of liquor on his breath he showed no signs of intoxication after a day ashore in Valdez.

Earlier, Walker testified the third mate had failed to properly carry out orders left behind by Hazelwood. Walker said it was the third mate’s responsibility to see to it that Hazelwood’s orders were carried out by the helmsman, who failed to execute the 10-degree right turn called for.

Walker was the first witness in the lengthy trial to directly point a finger at Third Mate Gregory Cousins, who was placed in control of the ship while Hazelwood went below to do paperwork. Most other witnesses have blamed the helmsman, Robert Kagan.

Walker, testifying on cross-examination, acknowledged that he considers a helmsman ″just another piece of the machinery,″ and indicated the third mate should have kept close watch to make sure he obeyed orders.

He said the only thing the helmsman needed to know to carry out his job was knowing the difference between right and left and the ability to read the numbers 1- through 35.

Asked whether any able-bodied seaman should be able to carry out an order for a 10-degree right turn, the witness replied, ″Probably anybody above the age of 5 could have carried that out.″

″So what you are saying is that if Greg Cousins had followed Capt. Hazelwood’s instructions and watched the rudder angle indicator to make sure the rudder angle order was being obeyed, the Exxon Valdez would not have hit Bligh Reef?″ the prosecutor asked.

″Yes, ma’am,″ said Walker.

″And what you’re saying is that because Greg Cousins did not follow Capt. Hazelwood’s order, the grounding is Cousins’ fault,″ Henry added.

″Yes, ma’am,″ responded Walker.

″And Capt. Hazelwood is not at fault at all?″ Henry asked.

″No, ma’am,″ said the witness.

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