Tanker’s bow watch says he ran before collision

Published 7:00 pm Friday, August 15, 2008

The seaman on watch at the bow of a tanker that struck an oil-laden barge on the Mississippi River testified Thursday that he ran from his lookout post when a collision appeared imminent, fearful of an explosion.

Able-bodied seaman Gilberto Guevarra said that when he later made his way back to the front of the tanker Tintomara, he saw the barge against the ship.

He testified before a Coast Guard inquiry into the July 23 accident that forced the agency to close a 100-mile stretch of the nation’s busiest inland shipping corridor for six days. The barge was carrying 419,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil when it broke apart and more than 276,000 gallons spilled.

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Some time after the hearings, Coast Guard investigator, Lt. Cmdr. Melissa J. Harper, will report on whether any misconduct or incompetence contributed to the accident and whether she believes charges should be brought; she also can make safety recommendations. The U.S. Attorney would decide whether to prosecute.

An investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, who is also participating, is to prepare a separate report.

The ship’s chief engineer, Henrik Olsson, also testified Thursday. He said the ship’s performance was “100 percent.”

On Wednesday, Capt. Jan Stefan Bjarve testified that the bow lookout of the tanker Tintomara had not reported the tug boat Mel Oliver as a possible hazard before Capt. Chance Gould, the Mississippi River pilot who guided the ship to New Orleans.

Guevarra, whose heavily accented speech was difficult to understand at times, testified under questioning by investigators and attorneys that he’d gotten six or seven hours of sleep in the 24 hours before starting his shift. He also said that was fairly standard for him.

He said he filled his replacement as helmsman in on such things as the ship’s direction and steering orders. He said he could not remember whether he was similarly filled in on details by the bow watchman he replaced.

He said he remembered seeing a green light moving across the river and hearing horns sound — “Boot boot boot boot bootboot!” — before leaving his position at the very front of the ship. He said he could not remember just when he ran after seeing the green light indicating the barge’s starboard, or right-hand, side.

After hearing from Olsson, Harper recessed the hearing indefinitely. She said she would meet with the parties next week to discuss potential witnesses and exhibits and expected a decision on how the hearings would proceed.

She said she understands that people want a quick resolution but it is imperative to gather as much information as possible. Harper said she believes everyone agrees it’s “paramount” to do all that can be done to keep such an accident from occurring again.

Part of the day was spent with the acting director of the Coast Guard Vessel Tracking System explaining how the system works and what printouts — showing such things as directional lines — meant.

At least one civil lawsuit has been filed in the July collision, claiming people were hurt by breathing oil fumes.

While no estimates have been compiled on damage to the vessels and the resulting environmental cleanup costs, the total is expected to easily climb into the millions of dollars.

Near the end of Wednesday’s session, Harper asked why Bjarve did not have the man drop anchor during the two minutes after Gould realized the tug was heading into the tanker’s path.

Given the tanker’s speed and weight, it probably would have just broken the anchor, Bjarve said.

Even had it held, “I don’t think it will slow down very much,” said Bjarve, who was provided a Swedish interpreter but did not need her. He said it would have taken 20 to 30 seconds for the anchor to drop, and it might not have caught on the river bottom.

Retired Coast Guard Capt. William Loefstedt, who is representing Liberia’s government, asked what would have happened had the anchor held: “Would it slew the stern?”

Bjarve said yes — and that might have slung the tanker into nearby wharfs.