Report cites pilot error in 2007 bay oil spill
Published: Thursday, October 30, 2008 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 29, 2008 at 1:52 p.m.
The Petaluma man who was piloting a ship a year ago made a series of mistakes that resulted in a huge oil spill in San Francisco Bay, according to a report released Oct. 23 by the state pilot commission.
The report “unequivocally indicates there was pilot error,” said Gary Gleason, an attorney for the state Board of Pilot Commissioners, a panel appointed by the governor to regulate ship pilots in San Francisco, Suisun and San Pablo bays.
John Cota, 60, was was pilot of the Cosco Busan, a 901-foot-long container ship, when it smashed into one of the towers of the Bay Bridge on Nov. 7. The collision caused a 220-foot long gash in the side of the ship and spilled 58,000 gallons of fuel oil into San Francisco Bay. The spill fouled 26 miles of shoreline and killed more than 2,000 birds.
Gleason said mistakes included allowing the ship to sail in heavy fog, failing to resolve concerns with the ship’s radar system and an electronic chart system and proceeding at an unsafe speed. He also said Cota failed to take into account communication difficulties with the Chinese crew, who had limited English-speaking abilities.
The seven-member pilot commissioners’ board voted to accept the committee report at a hearing Oct. 23.
Gleason ended his presentation by playing a recording of Cota’s voice on the Cosco Busan shortly after the accident.
“Oh, yeah, it’s so foggy. I shouldn’t have gone,” Cota said. “I’m not going to do well on this one.”
The investigation was done as part of proceedings to revoke Cota’s state pilot’s license. Cota voluntarily retired effective Oct. 1, but the board was required by law to complete and consider the report. The report did not investigate whether any other parties were also responsible for the accident.
Cota’s attorney, John Mead-ows, told the board that the crew of the Cosco Busan and the Coast Guard were partly to blame. The crew failed to notify Cota of the ship’s position and the Coast Guard did not warn him urgently of the danger that lay ahead.
“Had that been done, we wouldn’t be here today,” Meadows said. “Had the crew participated in the operation of the ship, this would never have happened.”
The 18-page report said Cota should have used extra care with the limited-English-speaking crew to ensure that they understood his plan for sailing in heavy fog.
Cota could see that the fog was thick when he decided to sail, but made no effort to determine visibility, instead relying on the ship’s radar, the report said. But when he had problems with the radar, he did not exercise sound judgment.
“Prudence would have dictated that he abort the attempted transit and turn south to a safe anchorage,” the report stated.
Instead, Cota directed the ship to sail at half speed, then at full speed. The Cosco Busan was moving at 11 knots (12.66 miles an hour) when it hit the bridge tower — a speed the report said was unsafe.
The ship’s owners and operators have estimated that cleanup and compensation costs will exceed $80 million, according to the report.
Cota faces federal criminal charges in connection with the incident -- two misdemeanor counts of negligently polluting the bay and killing migratory birds and two felony counts of making false statements on medical forms submitted to the Coast Guard.
His trial is expected to begin in November in federal court in San Francisco.
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