Cargo Ship Crashes into San Francisco Bay Bridge, Causes Oil Spill

By | November 12, 2007

A cargo ship sideswiped a support on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge last Wednesday, leaving a gash nearly 100 feet long on the side of the 926-foot vessel, and spilling fuel into the bay.

The crash ruptured two fuel tanks, which leaked about 58,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel into the bay — the bay’s worst oil spill in nearly two decades.

A preliminary Coast Guard investigation has found that “human error” caused a cargo ship to crash, as crews intensified efforts Saturday to rescue wildlife and clean up the resulting oil spill.

“There were skilled enough individuals on board this ship. They didn’t carry out their missions correctly,” said Rear Adm. Craig Bone, the Coast Guard’s top official in California.

Coast Guard officials declined to lay blame on any specific individual or provide further detail on the mistakes that were made.

Investigators were focusing on issues surrounding the ship’s official protocol for safely navigating out of the bay, including possible communication problems between the ship’s crew, the pilot guiding the vessel and the Vessel Traffic Service, the Coast Guard station that monitors the bay’s shipping traffic.

Coast Guard Cmdr. Andrew Wood said “the mere fact that they collided with a fixed object” offered clear evidence that a communication problem had occurred.

But a language barrier between the vessel’s pilot, Capt. John Cota, and the ship’s all-Chinese crew was not likely a factor in the crash, since ship’s captain and officers are required to speak English, officials said.

Cota, who is American, is among a group of specially trained pilots who are not members of a ship’s crew but typically come on board to maneuver large cargo vessels in San Francisco Bay.

Bone declined to comment on a report that the Coast Guard had warned the pilot about the ship’s course shortly before the crash.

John Meadows, the lawyer for the ship’s pilot, told The San Francisco Chronicle that the nearby Coast Guard facility radioed Cota and questioned his bearings. The pilot immediately responded by saying the ship’s instruments showed he was on the correct heading, Meadows told the newspaper.

Bone acknowledged that there were communications between the ship and the Coast Guard’s traffic facility before the collision. He said the communications involved the ship’s course and speed but declined to comment further on the nature of the exchange.

On Saturday, the Coast Guard increased the number of ships to 20 from 11 the previous day to work on skimming the oil from the bay, said Petty Ofc. Sherri Eng.

Nearly 20,000 gallons of oily liquid had been sucked up by Saturday morning, according to figures released by the Coast Guard.

About 770 workers took part in cleanup efforts on the water and along beaches to mop up the damage — a job that is expected to last weeks or possibly months.

Rescue teams also raced to save hundreds of seabirds tarred with black shipping fuel. At least 60 birds were found dead while 200 live birds were recovered and sent to a rehabilitation center in Solano County.

State wildlife officials warned untrained volunteers to stay away from hundreds of oiled birds turning up on Bay area beaches to avoid chasing them back into the water.

Most of the injured birds are surf scoters, a duck-like species that lives on the water’s surface and dives for fish. When oil gets on their feathers, it disrupts their waterproofing system and ability to stay warm, forcing them on shore where they are at risk of starvation.

Nearly two dozen beaches and piers remained closed Saturday after tides carried the oil under the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Pacific Ocean.

About 65 Bay Area fisherman met Saturday and voted to ask Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to officially close the commercial and sport crabbing seasons.

The crabbers want Schwarzenegger to halt crab fishing on the California coast from Point Arena in the north to the Mexican border until the waters are deemed safe, said Larry Collins, vice president of the Crab Boat Owners Association.

“We want the season closed until the oil is out of the water and no one gets sick from eating crab that’s been contaminated by the oil,” Collins said.

The sports season started on Nov. 3 and the commercial season was slated to start Nov. 15.

The crabbers said the oil spill does not harm the crustaceans until they’re transferred to the live tanks in which are housed after being caught.

Collins said crabs brought in by some fisherman on Saturday were dead on arrival.

Though more than seven miles of floating oil barriers had been deployed around the bay, authorities said most of the spilled oil will never be captured and eventually will dissolve into the water. Concentrated tar balls could remain for months, sullying beaches and causing problems for wildlife.

Fish and Game officials said the fuel generally stays on the water’s surface, and they had not seen any evidence that fish have been harmed — although they are concerned that the spill could affect bay herring that spawn at this time of year.

Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency Friday after meeting with state, federal and local officials overseeing the cleanup. The proclamation makes additional state personnel, funding and equipment available.

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