Exclusive: Ship pilot laughs after Cosco Busan oil spill

February 14, 2012 1:38:09 PM PST
It was one of the worst ecological disasters in San Francisco Bay history. The Cosco Busan hit the Bay Bridge, sending 53,000 gallons of thick oil into the water. Now, for the first time, the I-Team lets you listen in as it unfolds, in an investigation you'll see Only On 7.

Bar pilots are an elite group, with just 60 in the Bay Area. They have the expertise to guide all sorts of ships through the sand bars and channels, either into port or out to sea, and they are paid very well. The pilot aboard the Cosco Busan that day, John Cota, earned $450,000 the year of the accident. He has never spoken in public about the oil spill, but now, you'll hear his words as it happened.

The fog was very thick that November morning. The Cosco Busan's voyage data recorder captured Cota giving orders to the ship's Chinese crew.

Cota: "And you can sound the fog signal."

Captain: "Two prolonged signals?"

Cota: "No, just one."

The crew expressed concern in Mandarin about setting sail in such low visibility. One of them told investigators it looked like someone had hung a bed sheet over the ship's windows.

Cosco Busan crew (translated from Mandarin): "For American ships under such conditions, they would not be underway."

But the ship's captain and his crew did not raise any concerns with Cota. His call sign was "unit Romeo."

Cota: "Traffic, Romeo, we're underway."

Vessel traffic service: "Roger, unit Romeo, Cosco Busan departing Oakland."

The plan was that the fully-loaded 900-foot container ship would pass between two Bay Bridge towers -- the Delta and the Echo.

ABC7's Dan Noyes took the same route in a simulator at the California Maritime Academy.

Dan Noyes: "I'm out there on the water and I see this huge opening, and I think it can't be that hard."

Sam Pecota, CA Maritime Academy: "Well, let's make it. Increase the level of difficulty here, Mike."

Dan Noyes: "Oh."

Pecota: "Now, try and figure out where you are."

For some reason, Cota loses confidence in the ship's radar. So, he turns to the electronic chart. He can see the channel and the bridge, but he has difficulty recognizing a common symbol -- a red triangle.

Cota: "What are these red, red marks?"

Captain: "This is on bridge."

Cota: "Oh, oh, oh, I couldn't figure out what the red light was, red triangle was."

Cota believes the captain is telling him the red triangle marks the opening between the two towers. It actually symbolizes a buoy right in front of the Delta tower.

The Coast Guard's vessel traffic service sees that the ship is off course and questions Cota.

Vessel traffic service: "Unit Romeo, traffic. AIS shows you on 235 heading. What are your intentions, over?"

He asks the crew about the red triangle again.

Cota: "This is the center of the bridge, right?"

Crew: "Yeah, yeah."

Cota: "Yeah."

Cota: "Hard starboard."

Crew: "Hard starboard."

Cota: "We are still Delta Echo."

A lookout on the front of the ship spots the Delta tower first.

Chief officer (translated from Mandarin): "The bridge column, the bridge column."

Captain (translated from Mandarin): "Oh, I see it, I see it."

Cota: "Yeah, I see it."

Cota: "Hard port."

Crew: "Hard port."

Cota takes evasive action, but it's too late. The ship slams into the timbers protecting the tower, ripping a gash 220-feet long, 14-feet high and 8-feet deep into the Cosco Busan.

Cota: "Dead slow ahead."

Crew: "Dead slow ahead."

Cota: "Yeah, traffic, we just touched the Delta span, I'm gonna go to, try and get her anchored, anchorage nine or anchorage seven."

Scot Adair, EPA criminal investigator: "He essentially hit what he was aiming for that morning. He was aiming for a symbol on the electronic chart that he misunderstood."

The I-Team has exclusive interviews with the lead investigator and the head of the EPA's criminal investigation division in San Francisco. They told ABC7 this case should serve as a deterrent for all bar pilots.

Jay Green, EPA criminal investigation division: "Make the right decisions, make sure you have your faculties about you and ask for help when you don't know something before you make a catastrophic mistake."

Cota: "It was a miscommunication and what I thought was the center was the pier."

The National Transportation Safety Board found Cota "did not disclose to the US Coast Guard...all of his medical conditions," and that one "probable cause" of the accident was "the pilot's degraded cognitive performance from his use of impairing prescription medication."

Cota (from July 17, 2009): "Stunned, stunned, that's it, yup."

Cota wound up serving 10 months in federal prison for negligent discharge of a pollutant and violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

More than 53,000 gallons of fuel oil spilled from the Cosco Busan. The pilot who took over for Cota told him how bad it was.

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

The spill killed thousands of birds, affected marine mammals, closed beaches and halted crabbing and fishing.

The Coast Guard underestimated the extent of the disaster, even after reports came in from boats out on the bay.

Tugboat: "There is a large oil sheen on the water south of the bridge. There's a lot, it's pretty significant."

Captain William Uberti, US Coast Guard: "Our initial estimate is about 140 gallons roughly right now that has spilled so far."

The Coast Guard's own staff was in chaos. Listen to the vessel traffic service talking to a commanding officer, more than an hour after the accident:

Vessel traffic service: "We've had nobody check in for the fuel spill, so I don't know if there's any response whatsoever."

Officer: "OK, I wasn't informed of the fuel spill."

Vessel traffic service: "OK."

The executive director of San Francisco Baykeeper says several factors delayed the Coast Guard response.

Deb Self, San Francisco Baykeeper: "One of those is [that] the lead pollution investigator was actually in DC at the time; a couple of more junior people were sent out on this and didn't have the experience. They might have had the paper qualifications, but not the experience to make a really good call about where to look for the oil."

The oil headed south on the incoming tide, but the junior Coast Guard investigators were looking north. Animation from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows how the oil spread around the bay and out the Golden Gate, while the Coast Guard ramped up its response.

Dan Noyes: "Would the response to the spill be faster today than it was then?"

Commander Jason Tama, Coast Guard sector San Francisco: "I think in terms of response the most important change that we have here at sector San Francisco is the standup of our new interagency operations center."

It combines the vessel traffic service and a command center with room for outside partners, including local governments.

Capt. Rick Hurt, San Francisco Bar Pilots Association: "There definitely were lessons that were learned and we've all learned and gotten better."

Bar pilots have new rules. They must be able to see half a mile before setting sail. They face new fitness tests and must report all prescription medications. They must carry new personal pilot units to help them navigate what can be treacherous waters.

Hurt: "This was to take that variable out and give all pilots a presentation that they are familiar with."

Dan Noyes: "To make sure they understand what they're seeing."

Hurt: "And are trained in that specific piece of equipment."

The company that owns the Cosco Busan pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and falsifying documents after the accident. They paid a $10 million fine and $44 million toward the cleanup.

ABC7 called John Cota for an interview but reached his wife. He has not returned the call.


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