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Chief Mate Thought He’d Die In Tanker Spill Accident

May 18, 1989 GMT

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ The chief mate aboard the Exxon Valdez when it struck a reef in Prince William Sound and caused the nation’s worst oil spill told investigators Wednesday he thought he would die in the accident.

″I don’t mind telling you that at the time, I knew that my world would never be the same again,″ said James R. Kunkel. ″I never knew if I’d see my wife again.″

His testimony led off the second day of a five-day National Transportation Safety Board hearing into the cause of the March 24 accident, in which 10.9 million gallons of North Slope crude fouled more than 700 miles of shoreline.

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The panel plans to question more than two dozen witnesses, including Coast Guard personnel and Exxon executives. Capt. Joseph Hazelwood, who is charged with operating a vessel while drunk, will not testify. He faces trial June 20.

The board’s report on the cause of the accident will take up to a year to complete.

Kunkel said he saw no sign that Hazelwood had been drinking. He said he talked to Hazelwood shortly after the wreck and smelled no alcohol on his breath. ″At that time, the only scent in the air was crude oil vapors.″

Another witness who testified Wednesday, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Falkenstein, said the smell of alcohol on the captain’s breath was obvious when he interviewed Hazelwood on the bridge after the wreck.

Falkenstein said he had not met Hazelwood previously and could not judge whether he was intoxicated. The captain was reluctant to submit to a urine test to detect alcohol consumption, Falkenstein said.

Kunkel testified that when he told the captain about the huge loss of oil, Hazelwood replied: ″Well, this is one way to end a career.″

Wednesday’s questioning of Kunkel focused on the crew’s activities aboard the tanker, evidence the captain had been drinking, crew fatigue and Exxon policies.

Kunkel said he sometimes worked 24 hours a day with little rest and considered the odd hours just part of the job. And he suggested the long hours were not a serious problem. ″You’re talking to a person who is used to this,″ he said. ″This is normal for me.″

Kunkle described Gregory Cousins, the third mate who was in charge of the vessel when it ran aground, as ″a very competent young man″ who never complained of fatigue.

Cousins was not certified to operate the tanker in Prince William Sound. He said Hazelwood had left the bridge to send messages from his office.

Documents the NTSB has released suggest the accident could have been a lot worse. The documents also detail drinking by the captain on shore before the tanker left port.

A jammed gauge led officers aboard the Exxon Valdez to believe the vessel remained stable, and as a result Hazelwood tried to rock the vessel free of the reef. If the tanker had not been on the reef, ″the vessel would have capsized and sunk″ with more than 39 million gallons of oil still aboard, one document said.

Crew members and others who testified before the panel on Tuesday said Hazelwood smelled of alcohol but did not act drunk before the accident. He failed sobriety tests about nine hours after the early morning wreck March 24.

According to the documents, the ship’s radio officer, Joel Roberson, told investigators that he met Hazelwood and the ship’s chief engineer, Jerzy Glowacki, on the afternoon of March 23 at a bar, where they played darts and each bought one or more rounds of drinks.

He said Hazelwood was drinking a clear beverage, Glowacki was drinking gin and tonic and he drank beer. Glowacki told investigators he had three gin and tonics but did not recall how much Hazelwood had to drink.

Glowacki said the three left the bar about 7 p.m. and went to a restaurant and ordered pizza. Glowacki and the radio officer agreed each of the three men had one alcoholic drink as they waited.

Shortly after the accident, Hazelwood told an investigator he had a beer with lunch on March 23, a beer at the bar later in the day, and a third beer at the restaurant. He also said he drank two low-alcohol beers when he returned to the vessel.