NTSB probe: Pilot fatigue problem in ship crash

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Posted: Sep 27, 2011 5:02 PM
NTSB probe: Pilot fatigue problem in ship crash

Fatigue, improper communication and other distractions _ including a pilot reading a newspaper when he was supposed to be helping to navigate a large vessel through a narrow channel _ contributed to a ship collision last year between a tanker and a towboat that sparked the largest Texas oil spill in more than 20 years, federal transportation investigators said Tuesday.

"I don't think that's the professional behavior we expect of people. He's not there to read the paper," said Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board. "The pilots were not acting as a team. They were acting as two individuals who happened to be onboard the same ship."

The National Transportation Safety Board's final report, adopted at a meeting in Washington, assigns blame for the Jan. 22, 2010, collision in Port Arthur on the pilot of the tanker, the Eagle Otome. The collision with the towboat Dixie Vengeance, which was pushing two barges, breached the tanker, causing oil to spill into the Sabine-Neches Ship Channel. The spill shut down the busy waterway for five days. No one was injured.

The board said the Eagle Otome's pilot failed to regain full control of the ship after improperly taking a turn before the accident. The investigators believe fatigue contributed to his difficulties steering and centering the ship in the narrow channel.

The NTSB concluded the tanker's pilots were not following communication guidelines put in place by the local pilots' association. They also violated rules that said one pilot should be navigating and steering the ship while the other handled radio communications. Instead, they took turns, simultaneously conducting both tasks. At one point, the Eagle Otome pilot was on a radio call "at a critical point in the waterway, and the radio call interfered with his ability to fully focus" on navigating the ship, according to a synopsis of the report.

"The greatest lesson perhaps that we can draw from this accident is that guidelines and procedures are in place for a reason," NTSB Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman said.

Capt. Duane Bennett, presiding officer of the Sabine Pilots' Association, said the guidelines are not "hard and fast rules" and were put in place 25 years ago. Since then, he said, ship operators have found better ways to navigate their vessels down the channel. He also disagreed that the pilots were fatigued, saying one had been off for about 18 hours and the other for 14 hours. Both, he added, were in full compliance of U.S. Coast Guard and state regulations.

The NTSB was most pleased with the cleanup activities they said were so well-coordinated and efficient they successfully prevented the 462,000 gallon oil spill from fouling a pristine natural area and killing more than just a few marine birds. They said lessons learned from previous accidents and spills were properly applied, preventing a repeat of past problems or mistakes.

The spill was the largest in Texas since 1990, when a Norwegian tanker spilled 4.3 million gallons about 60 miles off Galveston. The state typically has about 800 spills a year, but nearly all involve less than one barrel of oil, according to the Texas General Land Office.

Early on the morning of the accident, there was poor visibility and high winds, but the investigators have not mentioned either as factors in the crash. Instead, they believe the first pilot's untreated sleep disorder combined with an irregular work schedule made him so fatigued he was unable to effectively center the ship in the waterway.

The investigators also mentioned that the design of the ship's steering console was unusual and it is possible the pilots could have inadvertently sped up when they meant to slow down and vice versa.

The NTSB was surprised to learn that the Sabine Pilots Association, responsible for guidelines on the Sabine-Nachez Channel, did not have a protocol for hours of service or fatigue. Meanwhile, 90 miles west, the pilots' association overseeing Houston waters does have such rules, Hersman said.

"It doesn't make sense to have a patchwork system across the country," Hersman said. "We're recommending that there be ... one standard of safety whether the vessel is operating in San Francisco or the Sabine-Natchez Channel."

Bennett disagreed. He said even the Houston and Sabine waterways are vastly different in everything from water currents to the types of vessels they serve.

"There's a reason there's so many systems out there. There's also a reason for layered guidance. Each waterway is unique," Bennett said.

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