Fatigue and distractions including off-colored jokes and reading newspapers are just some of the contributing causes to last year’s ship collision between the tanker Eagle Otome and a towboat which caused the largest Texas oil spill in more than 20 years, according to National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials today.
“I don’t think that’s the professional behavior we expect of people. He’s not there to read the paper,” said Robert Sumwalt, a member of the NTSB. “The pilots were not acting as a team. They were acting as two individuals who happened to be onboard the same ship.”
The investigators also found systemic problems with the communication guidelines used by the local pilot’s association,
Sabine Pilots, but were generally pleased with the containment and clean up activities that prevented the 462,000 gallons of oil from drifting down the river.
This information came from a public session held today in Washington and the NTSB is set to release its final report on the Jan. 22, 2010 collision in Port Arthur of the tanker Eagle Otome and towboat Dixie Vengeance. While no one was hurt in the incident, the collision breached the tanker, causing oil to spill into the Sabine-Neches. This subsequently resulted in the Coast Guard shutting down the waterway for five days and significant economic loss for the region.
The last spill of this size occurred on June 8, 1990, when the Italian tank vessel Fraqmura was lightering the Norwegian tank vessel Mega Borg and an explosion occurred in the pump room of the Mega Borg. The two ships were in the Gulf of Mexico, 57 miles southeast of Galveston Texas in international waters, but within the U.S. exclusive economic zone. As a result of the explosion, a fire started in the pump room and spread to the engine room. An estimated 100,000 barrels of Angolan Palanca crude was burned or released into the water from the Mega Borg during the next seven days.
Testimony and evidence presented at Coast Guard hearings of last year’s spill are clear that both vessels were aware of each other’s proximity and they initially thought they would be able to pass one another safely. The audio from “black box” VDR on the vessel reveals that moments before the collision, they had a calm conversation and even shared an off-color joke. Capt. Pallava Shukla, master of the tanker, denies this state of ease instead testifing that he became increasingly concerned about the ship’s situation because of “very, very poor visibility.” Shukla also claims that prior to the collision, he noticed his ship was turning too sharply and he tried to help the pilot check the vessel’s yaw.
There were two pilots aboard the tanker, as is mandatory when maneuvering such ships through the narrow waterway. Sabine Pilot, Capt. Charles Bancroft, testified that he told the tugboat he was heading toward a bridge and while the weather initially appeared normal, forces in the channel turned out to be some of the strongest he had faced in his career. Maneuvers that had worked previously — increasing rudder speed and pushing the engine to increase water flow around the ship — didn’t work this time, Bancroft said.
When it became clear to Bancroft that the tanker was getting too close to the tugboat, he ordered the engine stopped and the anchor thrown in attempt to rapidly stop the ship.