Pilot struggled in fog before bay oil spill

April 8, 2008 7:17:58 PM PDT
Last November's massive oil spill in San Francisco Bay is the subject of hearings this week in Washington D.C.

The National Transportation Safety Board is trying to figure out what caused the Cosco Busan oil spill and how these accidents can be prevented in the future.

Was it pilot error, system failure, or neglect on the part of the Coast Guard to help guide a 900 foot freighter out of the San Francisco Bay? Those are the questions from the National Transportation Safety Board holding hearings on the November 7th Cosco Busan accident that spilled 58,000 gallons of heavy bunker oil, soiling beaches, and killing more than 2000 birds.

"We're going to look at all elements of this accident which will also include the operations of this pilot," says National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Mark Ronsecker.

That pilot, John Cota, elected to steer toward the Bay Bridge, even though there was confusion about whether the ship's navigation equipment worked.

In newly-released audio transcripts, Chinese crew members expressed concern as well about the heavy fog.

The Coast Guard's vessel traffic service questioned Cota's course, but never gave an explicit warning a crash was imminent.

The NTSB chairman also grilled the Coast Guard about an allegation made by Cota's attorney, that Coast Guard personnel were placing bets on whether the Cosco Busan would hit the bridge.

"This did not happen, that's correct?" asked Ronsecker.

"I can tell you that absolutely that did not take place," says Coast Guard Commander Kevin Mohr.

The NTSB is also looking at whether the response to such a major spill was adequate. According to the transcripts, Cota knew the ship was leaking large quantities of oil when a relief pilot boarded and told him just 33 minutes after the crash.

"When I came up, the stuff was coming out like a cow peeing on a flat rock."

Cota responded, "Yeah, I just noticed that when we anchored."

Still the size of the spill was first reported as just 146 gallons.

"We didn't find out about the thousands of gallons until about 9:00pm that night," says San Francisco Public Safety manager Rob Dudgeon.

The signs determining the cause of from these hearings, the NTSB will issue reccomendations to try and prevent something like this from happening in the future. There is another full set of hearings set for Wednesday. First on the agenda is wether cota had some kind of health condition or wether he wa taking prescription medication that contributed to the accident.


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