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Tanker Lookout Testifies at Mississippi River Oil Spill Hearing

Aug 15, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

The lookout  of the tanker Tintomara gave his version of events leading up to last month's Mississippi River oil spill during a hearing in New Orleans yesterday.  Gilberto Guevarra's account backed up that given by the Tintomara's captain on Wednesday, and again placed blame for the oil spill on the tugboat Mel Oliver.

The Mississippi River oil spill occurred on July 23 when the Tintomara and the 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.

According to his testimony, lookout Guevarra was standing near the head of the ship as it  began its trip down the Mississippi at midnight July 23. Guevarra said he became alarmed when he saw a green light, indicating a vessel's starboard side, ahead in the water. The sighting meant that the Mel Oliver was turning in front of the Tintomara.

According to Guevarra, the Tintomara began sounding its warning whistle before he even had time to notify the bridge of the problem, meaning that the tanker's captain, Jan Stefan Bjarve, had already spotted the tugboat.

Guevarra's testimony backed up the captain's version of events.  On Wednesday, Bjarve told the hearing that 1:30 a.m. on June 23, the Mel Oliver suddenly veered into the path of the Tintomara.  Bjarve said the Mel Oliver did not signal the turn, nor did vessel traffic controllers issue any warnings.

Bjarve said he tried to warn the Mel Oliver repeatedly of the impending danger, but got no response.  The day Bjarve testified, the Coast Guard also played radio transmission recordings from that night that back up Bjarve’s claims that he tried desperately to warn the Mel Oliver without success.

At the end of yesterday's proceeding, the Coast Guard suspended further testimony.  The hearing had started at an earlier point in the investigation than is customary because the Coast Guard wanted to question the Tintomara's foreign crew, and allow them to return to their home countries.

The hearing could resume as early as next week, but no date has been set yet.  When the hearing does restart, it is expected that testimony will be taken from members of the Mel Oliver's crew.  Among those likely to be called are Terry Carver, master pilot of the Mel Oliver, and John Bavaret, the tug's apprentice mate.

At the time of the collision, Bavaret was piloting the Mel Oliver, despite lacking the proper license to do so.  Carver, who should have been onboard, was nowhere to be found.  

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