January 19, 2008 in Nation/World

Oil freighter pilot in Bay Area spill had sleep disorder

Scott Lindlaw Associated Press
File Associated Press photo

An approximately 90-foot long gash stretches along the hull of the Cosco Busan. Investigators are probing whether the pilot’s sleep disorder played a role in the November accident. Associated Press
(Full-size photo)

Sleep apnea

» Sleep apnea is a common disorder that can be very serious. In sleep apnea, your breathing stops or gets very shallow while you are sleeping. Each pause in breathing typically lasts 10 to 20 seconds or more. These pauses can occur 20 to 30 times or more an hour.

» Untreated sleep apnea can increase the chance of having high blood pressure and even a heart attack or stroke. Untreated sleep apnea can also increase the risk of diabetes and the risk of work-related accidents and driving accidents.

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

SAN FRANCISCO – The ship pilot who was at the helm when a freighter spilled 58,000 gallons of fuel into San Francisco Bay in November suffers from a sleep disorder and was on prescription medication to ward off drowsiness, people close to the investigation told the Associated Press.

Investigators want to know whether the disorder – or even the medication itself – contributed to the accident.

Federal officials and others, speaking on condition of anonymity, said John Cota has sleep apnea, a breathing condition that can disrupt sleep all night long and leave sufferers severely fatigued during the day. Sleep apnea is blamed for countless auto accidents every year in which drivers nodded off at the wheel.

Cota, 59, was also said to be taking a sleep-apnea drug that has known side effects including impaired judgment.

Prescription drugs are “certainly a part of our investigation,” said G. Ross Wheatley, chief of investigations for the Coast Guard’s San Francisco sector.

The disclosure has raised questions among members of Congress about the Coast Guard’s licensing practices and whether Cota should have been deemed fit for a job in which he was responsible for guiding giant cargo ships in and out of port and through the dangerous waters of the bay.

Under Coast Guard policy, a sleep disorder can be grounds for disqualification, but is not automatically so.

On Nov. 7, a 900-foot cargo ship Cota was piloting sideswiped the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, opening a gash in its hull and leaking heavy fuel in the worst oil spill in the bay in nearly two decades. The spill killed thousands of birds.

Wheatley declined to say what kind of medication Cota was taking, citing privacy concerns and the investigations under way.

But a person familiar with the case, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is still going on, said Cota was taking modafinil. Modafinil, often sold under the brand name Provigil, is given to people with narcolepsy, sleep apnea and other similar disorders to help them stay awake.

Cota was also taking another prescription drug, apparently to treat anxiety, that person and a federal official said.

According to an online guide assembled by the Physicians’ Desk Reference, the authoritative manual on prescription drugs, Provigil “may impair your judgment, thinking, or motor skills. You should not drive a car or operate hazardous machinery until you know how this medication affects you.” Also, it can interact with harmful effect with other drugs, including certain anti-anxiety medication, the guide says.

Similarly, Provigil’s manufacturer, Cephalon Inc., warns that the side effects can include hallucinations, depression, anxiety, mania and thoughts of suicide.

Cota passed his most recent state-administered annual physical about 10 months ago. Shortly afterward, he provided medical records to the Coast Guard that disclosed his sleep disorder and the medication he was taking for it, according to the person familiar with the case.

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