Cargo ship's crew zips up lips

The key players in the largest environmental crisis affecting the Bay in two decades are refusing to speak about the incident, hampering an investigation that has already been passed between federal agencies.

Six crew members aboard the Cosco Busan, the 900-foot cargo ship that slammed into the Bay Bridge last week and unleashed 58,000 gallons of oil into the water, have hired attorneys who have barred them from answering questions posed by the National Transportation Safety Board, the lead investigative body for the federal government.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard revealed Wednesday that some crew members did not undergo drug testing within the 36-hour window required by federal law. Contractors working for the company that owns the ship tested six crew members for drugs 53 hours after the accident. The six crew members were also tested for alcohol three hours after the accident, instead of two hours as required by law, the Coast Guard said.

The alcohol tests were delayed because the crew needed to move the ship away from the accident site, according to the Coast Guard. State-commissioned Capt. John Cota, who was piloting the ship, was tested properly for drugs and alcohol and the results were negative, officials said.

The crew has already been questioned by the Coast Guard about the Nov. 7 incident, which last week handed the federal investigation into the accident to the NTSB. However, when the U.S. Attorney’s Office began a criminal investigation, the crew members retained counsel, said Jim Lawrence, a spokesman with Regal Stone Ltd., the ship’s Hong Kong-based owner.

On advice of attorneys, the Chinese crew members — the captain, chief officer, helmsman, second mate, third mate and chief engineer — are not cooperating with the NTSB, Lawrence said. The crew has been issued subpoenas by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

NTSB member Debbie Hersman said investigators would still be able to conduct a “thorough investigation” without the interviews, but that one-on-one interviews were desirable.

“There are a number of other parallel investigations that are going on at this time,” she said. “It does make it very difficult for us to interview individuals in a safety accident investigation once stakes are increased.”

Investigators said they would like to speak with the crew of the ship after Cota indicated there were “questions about the symbology” on the electronic charting system, Hersman said. The ship was using the electronic charting system because its radar had malfunctioned in the heavy fog.

According to Hersman, the operator of the Revolution — the tugboat assisting the Cosco Busan out of the Bay — told NTSB investigators the larger vessel was traveling at approximately 10-11 knots when it clipped the delta span of the bridge.

Cota and the captain of the ship were communicating inEnglish while the captain and the rest of the crew were speaking in a Chinese dialect, Hersman said. Investigators are currently translating audio tapes from the voyage data recorder to better understand the crew’s decision-making.

Details regarding the investigation findings are expected today.

dsmith@examiner.com

Bay Area NewsLocal

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