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Pilot, crew struggled in fog before bay oil spill

The pilot of a freighter that caused a huge oil spill in the San Francisco Bay was confused about where he was headed and immediately regretted setting off that foggy morning, according to transcripts released Tuesday.
Bay Spill
The damaged Cosco Busan is seen in Oakland, Calif., on Nov. 10. Noah Berger / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The pilot of a freighter that caused a huge oil spill in the San Francisco Bay was confused about where he was headed and immediately regretted setting off that foggy morning, according to transcripts released Tuesday.

"Sorry captain, I misunderstood the chart, I thought that was the center," Capt. John Cota told the master of the Cosco Busan just after the 900-foot container ship sideswiped a support of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Nov. 7.

"Yeah, it's foggy, I shouldn't have gone. It's still, uh ... I'm not going to do well on this one," Cota said some minutes later after steering the freighter into anchorage as it disgorged 53,000 gallons of oil into the fragile ecosystem of the bay.

Cota, who's pleaded not guilty to criminal negligence and violating environmental laws, declined to testify at a two-day National Transportation Safety Board hearing that began Tuesday. His attorney did not immediately return a call for comment.

The first day of the hearing focused on procedures at the port and onboard ship that morning where Cota, a pilot who boarded locally, was working with a Chinese-speaking crew and a master who'd never been in the San Francisco-Oakland port. The captain and three crew members also refused to testify, though Cota is the only person charged in the accident.

Transcripts of the voyage data recorder show the pilot and crew struggling in English and Chinese to read navigational devices amid anxiety about thick fog.

"I've tried to target five times, never plots. That's not good for fog," Cota complains as they take off.

A crew member aboard the Hong Kong-flagged ship seems to express surprise that the ship is setting out, saying in Chinese, "for American ships under such conditions, they would not be under way."

As the moment of the collision approaches, the chief officer says in Chinese, "the bridge column, the bridge column."

'It's leaking, leaking'
Moments later the accident has occurred as the huge freighter sideswipes a support of the bridge.

"Is the ship all right? Is the ship all right?" Cota asks in English.

"No. No. No. It's leaking, leaking," replies another ship officer.

NTSB officials said the ship's electronic charts did not fully comply with international standards.

In the moments after the crash, Cota and the Chinese captain squabble over who is to blame.

"You said this was the center of the bridge," Cota says, evidently pointing to charts.

"Yes," the captain responds.

"No, this is the center. That's the tower. This is the tower. That's why we hit it. I thought that was the center," says Cota.

"It's a buoy," the captain replies, apparently referring to the buoy that marks the bridge tower.

The captain, master Sun Mao Cai, says in Chinese to a crew member: "What I said to him was not incorrect. This is the center of the bridge, not of the channel. As the pilot you should know full well."

Cota then recounts the events to an unidentified person by cell phone, saying, "Then he said, 'Oh, no, these are the lights for the center of the bridge. These red things.' I know — I mean I should know — this."

The Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Service had advised Cota that visibility ranged from an eighth of a mile to a quarter of a mile. The VTS transcripts indicate early concerns that the response to contain the oil spill lagged.

Peter McIsaac, the president of the San Francisco Bar Pilots Association, calls the Vessel Traffic Service and urges them to dispatch response crews.

"This guy's dumping fuel," he says.

Pilot alleged to have 'medical issues'
Capt. Aga Nagarajan, general manager of ship operator Fleet Management Ltd., was the only witness connected with the ship's operations. Appearing under subpoena he defended his company's safety procedures and the actions of captain and crew, also discounting language barrier as an issue.

"Everything points to some medical issues that are involved with the local licensed pilot," said Nagarajan, without elaborating.

The Associated Press reported in January that Cota was taking prescription medication to combat drowsiness brought on by his sleep apnea. That medication's side effects are known to include impaired judgment.

Board members closely questioned the operations of the Vessel Traffic Service, which contacted Cota to ask his intentions as he steered off-course — but did not warn of impending danger.

NTSB investigator Larry Bowling asked what prohibited the VTS from warning: "'Steer clear of the bridge tower.'"

Coast Guard officials, insisting that the VTS, unlike air traffic control, is a mostly advisory system, said that at that point it would have been counterproductive by distracting the pilot.

A transcript of an interview with the Vessel Traffic Service commander who stood watch that morning show he and his colleagues watched from afar, their vision obscured by fog and imprecise radar, unsure what was happening, as the disastrous events unfolded.

"We almost predicted, it was almost a prediction that we expected to get the call that he had hit the bridge," Coast Guard watch supervisor Mark Perez told investigators — but he said they couldn't be sure.