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Pilot had misgivings before ship embarked

Thu., Nov. 15, 2007

OAKLAND, Calif. – Something didn’t seem right to ship pilot John Cota when he inspected the bridge of the freighter Cosco Busan at dawn.

The ship gleamed with state-of-the-art electronic charting equipment and two radar displays that penetrated fog and darkness, but these vital instruments seemed out of whack, he told investigators. According to Cota, he grumbled to the ship’s captain, but the captain’s replies reassured him sufficiently that Cota guided the vessel out of its berth at the port of Oakland.

But as the 901-foot ship slipped into a bank of fog, the radar conked out, and the confusion over the electronic charts resurfaced at a critical moment, according to Cota’s account. Catastrophe struck moments later.

The instruments are emerging as focal points as the National Transportation Safety Board examines what caused the ship to sideswipe the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge last week, opening a gouge in its hull and dumping 58,000 gallons of sludge-like bunker fuel into San Francisco Bay.

Earlier this week, the Coast Guard ruled out mechanical failure, pointing strongly to human error, including communication problems and “bridge-management issues” among a crew that was new to the ship.

But the NTSB, which took over the safety aspect of the accident, reinterviewed witnesses and participants under oath, and is studying the possibility of equipment problems, board member Debbie Hersman said.

One of the board’s first tasks was to reinterview Cota, among the most experienced of the seamen who guide ships through the bay.

Cota has not spoken publicly since the accident – the bay’s worst oil spill in nearly two decades – killed hundreds of birds and forced the closing of beaches throughout the area. But in news briefings and in interviews with the Associated Press, the NTSB provided many details of the pilot’s account.

The NTSB emphasized that Cota’s account represents just one side of the story, and it is trying to verify his version of events with other witnesses, records and other evidence.


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