Bay Area bridge accident: Pilot has record of investigations
The port pilot supervising the container vessel that struck the footing of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco harbor Wednesday has a been involved in several ship-handling incidents and was previously reprimanded by state officials for an error in judgment, according to state documents.
While having 25 years of experience piloting vessels in and out of San Francisco Bay and being considered by many in the industry to be an excellent ship-handler, Capt. John Cota, 59, has been involved in four investigations in the past 14 years by the State Board of Pilot Commissioners.
Cota was the pilot aboard the COSCO Busan Wednesday when the vessel hit one of the Bay Bridge tower footings during heavy fog, slicing a large hole in the side of the 901-foot-long vessel and spilling 58,000 gallons of diesel fuel into the bay.
In state documents, commission officials described Cota as a 'very good pilot,' but said his record of ship handling incidents was higher than the median for Bay Area pilots.
According to state documents, Cota has appeared before the state's Pilot Commission for the Bays of San Francisco, San Pablo and Suisun a handful of times during his career. Most recently, Cota was reprimanded last summer following the grounding of a bulker near the Antioch docks in February 2006.
“Capt. Cota had not realized that the vessel was going off track and did nothing to prevent it,” said the report on the incident.
He also received a 'letter of concern' over a San Francisco Bay incident involving a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in 2003. In the 10 years prior to that, Cota was also involved in several other incidents and before that had received counseling by commission officials on several occasions.
The COSCO Busan's collision was the first time a vessel has hit one of the Bay Bridge footings since the span opened more than 70 years ago.
Port pilots like Cota are licensed by the state and paid by the shipping lines through pilotage fees. Pilots board the vessels before they enter the harbor, or leave with the vessel and are picked up outside the harbor. Bay Area pilots — who average $491,000 a year — are able to give orders while piloting a vessel, but by regulation are still subordinate and can be overruled by the vessel's captain.
State and local officials are investigating the accident and the State Board of Pilot Commissioners is required to conduct an investigation into a pilot's actions following such an incident.
Calls for legal action over the damage to the bridge and the fuel spill were already coming from San Francisco City Hall, where ironically, the city prosecutor used to represent the Bay Area pilot's association. However, unless the ship owner is found liable, the city may be unlikely to collect any money. Port pilots are protected from liability by state regulation, and shipping lines must pay for insurance to cover possible damage from pilot action when hiring one.
Officials appeared to have some initial difficulty in tracking down the owner of the vessel. While the vessel was being chartered by Seoul-based ocean carrier Hanjin Shipping, the registered owner of the COSCO Busan has been reported in various places as either an Indian firm, a Cypriot firm, a Hong Kong-based firm or a German firm.
Early Thursday, the actual owner of the vessel, Regal Stone Ltd. of Hong Kong, came forward and said through a crisis management firm that it would 'step up to the plate' regarding the accident.
'It’s their ship. They own it. It’s fully insured,” said the spokesperson.
Officials confirmed that Regal Stone called in a private cleanup firm immediately after the accident.