TAMPA, Fla. (AP) _ The crewman at the helm of the Exxon Valdez when it struck a reef in Alaska said the captain did not appear to be drunk on the night the ship ran aground, a newspaper reported Saturday.

''There was no indication there was anything wrong,'' Third Mate Gregory Cousins told the Tampa Tribune in his first interview since the March 24 accident.

Cousins, who Exxon has said was operating the 987-foot ship when it hit the charted reef, has been on leave at home in Tampa preparing his testimony on the 10 million gallon crude oil spill for a National Transportation Safety Board hearing May 16 in Anchorage, Alaska.

Cousins, who described ship Capt. Joseph Hazelwood as ''extremely competent,'' defended similar statements from other crew members about Hazelwood's apparent sobriety when the tanker grounded.

''It's not like we're circling the wagons. It's just the truth,'' Cousins said.

Hazelwood of Huntington, N.Y., was fired by Exxon when tests conducted more than 10 hours after the accident showed a blood-alcohol level above the .04 percent permitted under Coast Guard regulations. He faces trial June 20 in Valdez on charges of operating the vessel while drunk.

Cousins, who was not certified to navigate Prince William Sound, faces a Coast Guard review of his license and must testify at state and federal trials resulting from the spill.

The Associated Press was unable to reach Cousins on Saturday because he has an unlisted telephone number.

In the interview, he did not make specific comments on his role during the accident. He told the newspaper he is eager to tell his side of the story but his attorney has advised him to wait for the NTSB hearing.

''I think all the pieces have been reported, but they haven't been put together right,'' said Cousins, who was responsible for safety and emergency equipment on the tanker.

He spent two days after the accident in Valdez, listened to public reaction and was disturbed about misperceptions about tanker crews.

''It's a tragedy of some enormity. You can't blame people for being outraged,'' he said. ''Emotions were running high.''

Cousins called the spill damage sickening but said he believes Exxon is doing all it can with cleanup ''no matter what anyone says.''

The oil has moved about 500 miles southwest of Valdez, fouling the shore at the Katmai National Park wildlife refuge and other areas.

Cousins said the past six weeks have been stressful for him and his wife, Michelle.

''We're trying to stabilize things around here. Michelle has been harassed by constant questions,'' he said. ''She didn't know what was going on those first few days. When I wasn't around, I was very worried about her welfare.''