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Doctor: Pilot in oil spill should not have license

Image: John Cota
Capt. John CotaJeff Chiu / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The pilot of the container ship that spilled 53,000 gallons of fuel oil into the San Francisco Bay was convicted of DUI and took prescription drugs that could have affected his cognitive abilities, federal investigators said Wednesday.

Capt. John Cota was apparently diagnosed with alcoholism and developed pancreatitis as a result of his drinking, according to testimony at a National Transportation Safety Board hearing. One NTSB investigator questioned why a local pilots board hadn't noticed a worsening pattern after a 2004 incident in which Cota was enraged and irrational on-board a ship, and another in 2006 in which a vessel he was piloting ran aground.

A medical witness said that Cota should not have been granted a pilot license by the Coast Guard after a physical last year, which revealed a long list of medical conditions including sleep apnea, which can cause problems sleeping and drowsiness during the day.

Cota is facing federal civil charges and declined to testify at the hearing. He was taking anti-anxiety pills, Wellbutrin for depression and medications for pain, migraines, glaucoma and to combat his sleep apnea, among other prescriptions.

"I wouldn't want anyone taking those medicines and having to make decisions in a safety-sensitive position," Dr. Robert Bourgeois told an NTSB panel during the second day of a two-day hearing on the Nov. 7 accident. Bourgeois, who performs physicals for the Federal Aviation Administration and also examines mariners, said Cota shouldn't have been given a pilot's license.

Cota’s lawyer disputed the assessment but declined to say what medications Cota was on that morning. Attorney Jeff Bornstein noted that Cota passed a drug and alcohol test after the accident, though such a test isn’t meant to detect most legally prescribed drugs.

“There’s absolutely no link between any of the medically prescribed medications that Captain Cota used on the morning of Nov. 7 and this incident,” said Bornstein. “We have said from the beginning that a timely clear warning by the Coast Guard, along with accurate information by the captain and crew of the Cosco Busan, are important factors that need to be evaluated by the government... Had there been effective bridge team management and/or a clear warning from the Coast Guard, this incident would never have occurred.”

With Cota piloting, the 900-foot Cosco Busan sideswiped a support of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in heavy morning fog, gashing the ship's side and fuel tank. The spill fouled the fragile bay, killing or injuring thousands of birds and closing beaches.

Documents released by the NTSB at the first day of the hearing Tuesday showed that the medications Cota took prompted the Coast Guard to ask him to voluntarily turn in his mariner's license in the weeks after the accident because of concerns about his judgment.

Retained license after rehab
NTSB investigator Dr. Barry Strauch revealed Wednesday that Cota was convicted of driving under the influence in February 1999, apparently was diagnosed with alcoholism and entered an alcohol rehabilitation program. A waiver was granted so he could retain his pilot's license, Strauch said. The alcohol use was likely the cause of his pancreatitis, Bourgeois said.

One of the medications Cota took was lorazepam, an anti-anxiety drug that Bourgeois said the FAA doesn't let aircraft pilots use. The pills have a half-life of 11 or 12 hours and "that's not something you'd want to have onboard when you're trying to do important duties," the doctor said. Bourgeois said the medications could have interacted with each other to exacerbate side-effects.

Transcripts of the voyage data recorder show Cota was confused about the Cosco Busan's navigation systems the morning of the crash. Cota boarded locally to assist the Chinese-speaking crew and struggled to understand the ship's devices in near-zero visibility. "Yeah, it's foggy, I shouldn't have gone," Cota says shortly after the crash. He tells the ship's master he misunderstood the chart and the master's explanations of it, apparently mixing up different symbols.

Yet Cota denied to an NTSB interviewer that an apology he offered the master was a statement of wrongdoing and accused the ship's master of misreading the charts.

There was debate Wednesday over Cota's record, with Strauch, the NTSB investigator, citing previous incidents including one in 2004 where Cota grew irate at crew members on a ship called Tarawa over non-regulation equipment.

He berated the crew with "offensive and derogatory language," according to a letter by the San Francisco Board of Pilot Commissioners closing out the incident, which a review board treated as a "medical issue." Cota was removed temporarily but subsequently deemed fit.

Involved in 12 incidents
In 2006, Cota was reprimanded for "lack of situational awareness" by the Board of Pilot Commissioners after a freighter he was piloting ran aground. A list released by the NTSB shows that not counting the Cosco Busan, Cota was involved in 12 incidents of groundings or ship damage since being licensed in 1981, but not all of those involved pilot error.

"If you look at Captain Cota's record there certainly appears to be a pattern. Why did the commission miss the pattern of performance degradation?" Strauch asked.

K. Michael Miller, president of the San Francisco Board of Pilot Commissioners, responded that Cota's incident rate was higher than that of other pilots, but only by a tiny amount.

"On a percentage basis he had a very good career and a very safe career," Miller said. "So at what point can you say for certain and sure that there is a degradation of performance?"

Cota has pleaded not guilty to criminal negligence and violating environmental laws. He is the only one charged in the incident but the ship's master and several crew members also refused to appear under subpoena at the NTSB hearing amid ongoing federal investigations.