Mississippi River Oil Spill Witness Contradicts Pilot's Account of AccidentOct 23, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP A witness to the July 23 Mississippi River oil spill testified yesterday that it appeared the improperly licensed pilot at the helm of the towboat Mel Oliver was asleep at the time of the accident. That testimony directly conflicted with that of the pilot, who told the same Coast Guard hearing earlier this week that he was busy fixing the towboat's radar just prior to the spill.
The Mississippi River oil spill occurred when the tanker Tintomara and a barge carrying 419,000 gallons of oil - being towed by the Mel Oliver - collided. The barge split in half, spilling much of its cargo into the river. It is estimated that about 280,000 gallons of oil actually spilled into the Mississippi. The spill was the worst to ever occur on the lower Mississippi River.
On Tuesday, John Bavaret, the pilot operating the Mel Oliver told the hearing that he was filling in for the ship's captain, who had gone ashore to visit his girlfriend. Bavaret did not have the proper license to do so without supervision. Because he was doing double duty, Bavaret testified that he only had time for quick naps on the rare occasions he had down time. However, he said he was busy fixing the Mel Oliver's malfunctioning radar at the time of the collision, and it was only when he heard a warning from the Tintomara that he realized the tanker was heading straight for the barge being towed by the Mel Oliver.
Bavaret said he tried to move the barge out the way, but claimed the Mel Oliver’s steering system jammed. Bavaret also claimed that the vessel’s wing meter, which is supposed to detect whether the vessel has turned, was also broken. In addition, Bavaret acknowledged ignoring radio transmissions from both Coast Guard personnel and the crew of the Tintomara who were trying to warn the Mel Oliver of the impending danger. According to Bavaret, his radio microphone had fallen to the floor and that he did not want to risk reaching for the device.
But yesterday, a deckhand on another vessel near the Mel Oliver at the time of the collision claimed that it was his belief that the towboat's pilot was asleep when the crash occurred. Brent Ledet, a deckhand on the Judy Ann, said that as his vessel pulled alongside the Mel Oliver right after the collision with the Tintomara, a Mel Oliver deckhand shouted out that he "guessed he (the pilot) fell asleep."
Ledet's testimony also contradicted Bavaret's claims that he tried to steer the Mel Oliver out of the way of the tanker. Ledet said the Mel Oliver slowly drifted from the river's east bank in a beeline across the river without a change in speed and no sign of backwash or smoke coming from the stacks. Those, he said, would have been signs that the pilot was awake and attempting to throw his engine into reverse.
Ledet also said that as the Judy Ann pulled along side the Mel Oliver, he saw the green glow of a radar screen in the towboat's wheelhouse, which would indicate it wasn't broken.
Coast Guard investigators have also said they checked the equipment after the accident and found no problems.