Coast Guard begins hearing on oil spill

March 9, 2010 12:35:21 PM PST
The pilots of a tugboat and tanker that collided in a Gulf of Mexico waterway, causing the worst Texas oil spill in 15 years, were aware of how close together their vessels were but were apparently unaware they were about to collide, according to audio recordings played Tuesday during a Coast Guard hearing. The Jan. 23 collision off of Port Arthur dumped 462,000 gallons of crude oil into the Sabine Neches Waterway, forcing its temporary closure and coating some wildlife in oil. No one was injured.

Capt. Pallava Shukla, who was master of the 800-foot Eagle Otome tanker that morning, testified that he had become increasingly concerned about the ship's situation and had noticed it was having difficulty recovering from strong winds that were pushing the vessel too far to the west side of the narrow channel. Visibility, he testified, was "very, very" poor and he noticed at one point the ship was turning too sharply and helped the pilot correct the angle.

There were two pilots aboard the tanker, as is mandatory when maneuvering such ships through the narrow waterway. However, Shukla said neither pilot shared information with him about passing arrangements that had been made with the tugboat.

The Coast Guard and the National Transportation and Safety Board are investigating the collision. No conclusions will be reached at the end of the public hearing, which could take up to 10 days. At the end of the investigation, the two agencies will make recommendations aimed at improving waterway safety.

The Eagle Otome and the tugboat were in contact ahead of the collision both with one another and the radio dispatcher.

The dispatcher warned the tugboat the tanker was below the bridge in the channel.

"Yeah, I see him," the tugboat pilot responded.

"If you need me to speed up or slow down to make it easier for both of us, just let me know," he continued.

"I don't think so at this point."

As they get closer, the communication continued.

"I'm gonna slow down and give you enough time to get past," one pilot said.

"All right, slow down," the other answered.

Before the vessels met, however, the Eagle Otome experienced several wind episodes that push it far into the west side of the channel -- the passing lane, according to Shukla. The only indication that the Eagle's pilot may have informed the oncoming tugboat of his problem is an exchange that began, "Got it out of whack here."

The other pilot responded: "Come on ... bring it on. We should be all right."

A short time later, the pilots could see each other. One said: "You sure are wide," in apparent surprise at the other vessel's size.

The other pilot responded with an off-color remark. It was unclear from the audio, which pilot is from which ship.

Despite this exchange and his testimony that he was in the radio room at some points while moving through the narrow channel, Shukla said he was unaware the pilots had been talking to each other. He did, however, realize the pilot's order to emergency anchor in an attempt to brake the vessel and get it back on course, was failing.

Port Arthur is about 90 miles east of Houston.


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