Busan crew held for federal criminal probe of Bay Area bridge accident
A preliminary U.S. Coast Guard investigation has found that human error, not mechanical failure, caused a containership to crash into a footing of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge last week.
Federal officials said Sunday the vessel's all-Chinese crew was being detained as part of an ongoing criminal investigation.
The Wednesday morning crash, which tore a 180-foot-long hole in the side of the 926-foot-long COSCO Busan, resulted in nearly 60,000 gallons of diesel fuel polluting San Francisco Bay, fouling wildlife and causing closure of at least a dozen local beaches.
Coast Guard Capt. William Uberti told media outlets on Sunday that he notified the U.S. Attorney’s office Saturday about management and communication issues among the four-member bridge crew: the helmsman, the watch officer, the ship’s master and the pilot.
The pilot, John Cota, is a licensed port pilot in the Bay Area and was not being detained with the other members of the vessels crew. Port pilots are hired by shipping lines to guide oceangoing vessels in and out of the port on a per-trip basis.
The Busan's cargo is being unloaded at the Port of Oakland before the vessel is made seaworthy with temporary repairs. The repairs, estimate to cost from $800,000 to $900,000, will see the ship through to South Korea where it will be permanently repaired.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators arrived Sunday to begin their own look into the cause of the accident. The NTSB, which as a matter of policy took over as the lead investigative agency from the Coast Guard, said it would look at everything from crew fatigue to mechanical or weather issues.
Immediately before the crash Cota was contacted by the local Vessel Traffic Service operators — who act like air traffic controllers but for vessels in the harbor — and queried about his position that was off the normal track for going under the bridge. Cota said in a statement that he told the VTS that the instruments on the COSCO Busan said his position was fine.
The nearly 5,500-TEU Busan was leaving the Port of Oakland — located south and to the east of the bridge — and should have made a slight turn to port before making a sharper turn to starboard to line up with the 2,200-foot-wide gap between two of the Bay Bridge tower footings. However, an animated rendering of the vessel's course and speed — released over the weekend and based on information from the vessel's radio transponder — showed the vessel made a hard turn to port about a mile and a half from it's Oakland berth, ran west nearly parallel to the bridge for about a mile at nearly 12 knots and then tried to make a dramatic hard to starboard turn to make it under the bridge before passing the second tower. The ship hit the tower footing as the vessel swung around and moved under the bridge.
California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have both called for speedy investigations of the accident, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the Bay.
Oil clean-up efforts continued over the weekend, with the Coast Guard increasing the number of involved in the clean up to a total of 81.
The Coast Guard reported Monday that more than 12,200 gallons of the diesel fuel had been recovered as of Sunday, and another 4,060 gallons had evaporated. The clean-up effort is expected to take weeks or possibly months.