By RAMIT PLUSHNICK-MASTI
PORT ARTHUR, Texas – An 800-foot tanker struggling with poor visibility and strong winds apparently failed to center itself in a narrow waterway off the Gulf of Mexico, possibly contributing to a collision with a tugboat that caused the largest oil spill in Texas in 15 years, according to testimony and evidence presented at a Coast Guard hearing on Tuesday.
The tanker pilot’s attempts to regain control of the ship by speeding up, pulling an emergency stop and throwing an anchor down at full-speed all proved fruitless, first pilot Capt. Charles Bancroft said. At the last moment, it became clear the Eagle Otome would collide with the tugboat, the Dixie Vengeance.
The tanker leaked 462,000 gallons of crude oil into the Sabine Neches Waterway off the Gulf Coast city of Port Arthur, forcing the waterway’s temporary closure and harming some marine life but not causing any injuries.
The pilots of both vessels were aware they were close to one another on Jan. 23, but audio recordings and testimony indicate they initially thought they would be able to pass one another safely. Just moments before the collision, they had a calm conversation and even shared an off-color joke.
But Capt. Pallava Shukla, who was master of the Eagle Otome tanker that morning, testified he had become increasingly concerned about the ship’s situation and had noticed it was having difficulty recovering from strong winds that were pushing the vessel too far to the west side of the narrow channel. The west side of the channel is reserved for a ship that needs to pass alongside from the other direction, he said.
Visibility, Shukla testified, was “very, very” poor and he noticed at one point the ship was turning too sharply and tried to help the pilot correct the angle.
There were two pilots aboard the tanker, as is mandatory when maneuvering such ships through the narrow waterway. The pilots are local professionals brought on board to move large vessels through narrow, inland, shallow waterways, such as the Sabine channel. Two pilots are required to relieve one another through what can be a five- to eight-hour long journey.
The Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the collision. No conclusions will be reached at the end of the public hearing, which could take up to 10 days. At the end of the investigation, the two agencies will make recommendations aimed at improving waterway safety.
The Eagle Otome and the tugboat were in contact with one another ahead of the collision and discussed passing arrangements.
Bancroft told the tugboat he was heading toward a bridge.
“Yeah, I see,” the tugboat pilot responded, adding “If you need me to speed up or slow down to make it easier for both of us, just let me know,” he continued.
“I don’t think so at this point,” Bancroft said.
As they get closer, the communication continued.
“I’m gonna slow down and give you enough time to get past,” one pilot said.
“All right, slow down,” the other answered.
Before the vessels met, however, the Eagle Otome experienced several wind episodes that pushed it far into the west side of the channel – the passing lane, according to Shukla. The only indication the Eagle’s pilot may have informed the oncoming tugboat of his problem was an exchange that began, “Got it out of whack here.”
The other pilot responded: “Come on … bring it on. We should be all right.”
A short time later, the pilots could see each other. One said: “You sure are wide,” in apparent surprise at the other vessel’s size.
The other pilot responded with an off-color remark. It was unclear from the audio which pilot is from which ship.
Bancroft said the weather initially appeared normal, but that the forces in the channel turned out to be some of the strongest he’d faced. 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.
“For a moment, she appeared to have started to respond,” Bancroft said, but then suddenly started to swing off course again.
Finally, when it became clear the tanker was getting too close to the tugboat, Bancroft said he ordered the engine stopped and the anchor thrown – a last ditch effort to bring the ship to a sudden stop and prevent the collision. After giving the order, Bancroft said he went outside to see how close they were to the tugboat. People, he said, were yelling and running around. It was clear the collision was unavoidable, but no one had pulled the alarm.
So Bancroft said he pulled the alarm, giving off the short blasts consistent with a danger signal.
In hindsight, Bancroft said he does not believe he would have changed his maneuvers.
“I don’t know that I can speculate to prevent future incidents,” Bancroft said in response to a question on what he could have done differently. “I would have handled the ship the same way, not knowing what would happen.”
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