Possible communication gap on ship probed

U.S. Coast Guard investigators are focusing on communication lapses on the container ship Cosco Busan that may have led to the 900-foot ship sideswiping the Bay Bridge and spilling more than 50,000 gallons of toxic fuel into the Bay.

As part of their investigation, the U.S. Coast Guard is looking specifically at communication on the bridge of the ship where the ship’s commanding officers are located.

The revelation came on the same day that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency – his first in the Bay Area since last spring’s collapse of the MacArthur Maze – to free up resources for the cleanup effort. A statement by the attorney for the pilot guiding the ship was also issued Friday, which said that Capt. John Cota notified authorities immediately and soon after alerted them that there was a sheen of oil on the water.

According to the statement, it took cleanup crews at least 90 minutes to respond. Coast Guard logs of the day’s events shows a response team on the scene in about a half hour, but it took much longer for oil-skimming vessels to arrive. Cota’s statement bolsters the criticism of local officials, who have said the Coast Guard did not tell them of the spill’s magnitude until 9 p.m. Wednesday.

“My investigators during the course of their investigation found that there appear to be some bridge management issues with the ship,” said Coast Guard Capt. William Uberti, the federal on-scene coordinator of the cleanup effort.

Four people are typically on the bridge: a pilot, officer of the deck, master of the vessel and a helmsman.

“(The issues) have to do with communication with the officer on watch and helmsman,” he added. “We looked closely into that, and it looks like we might have some problems there.”

Ross Wheatley, the senior investigating officer for the Coast Guard, said communication issues made up only a portion of the investigation as authorities try to “rule out as many (potential causes) as possible.”

He said Cota, who was piloting the ship at the time of the crash, was being “very cooperative” and answering their questions.

Authorities cautioned that the investigation was still in its early stages, noting that they were still trying to determine which shipping channel of two the boat intended to use.

The Cosco Busan washeaded for a 10-day trip to South Korea when on Wednesday morning, in the dense fog, it swiped a protective barrier at the base of the Bay Bridge. There was no damage to the bridge, but a gash 100 feet long, 12 feet high and three feet deep opened up along the ships hull.

Nearly 58,000 gallons of some the most toxic fuel used spilled into the Bay, and since the accident early Wednesday oil is concentrating in the Bay near Albany, above and below the Richmond Bridge, Raccoon Strait and approximately 2 to 3 miles offshore.

Officials have even responded to reports of oil at the Farallon Islands, but only oiled birds have been seen in that area, according to the state Department of Fish and Game.

Schwarzenegger toured the command center on Ft. Mason on Friday and declared a state of emergency, all of the state’s resources available to aid in the clean-up. He also mandated the California Office of Spill Prevention and Response to utilize money from an industry-supported trust fund to aid in the efforts.

“We will help 100 percent with everything we can from the state,” Schwarzenegger said.

dsmith@examiner.com

Wire reports contributed to this story.

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