Transcripts: Busan pilot confused before bridge strike
Wheelhouse transcripts released during a during a federal hearing on Tuesday revealed the local pilot of the COSCO Busan did not understand the vessel's position before it sideswiped a Bay Area bridge last November, and questioned his decision to sail in heavy fog after the accident resulted in a massive oil spill.
The transcripts were released during a National Transportation Safety Board hearing into the Nov. 7, 2007 collision with the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and resulting discharge of more than 53,000 gallons of diesel fuel into the bay. The spill led to the closure of more than a dozen local beaches and killed thousands of birds and other marine animals.
Capt. John Cota, who refused to testify at the Washington, D.C. hearing, has pleaded not guilty to federal charges stemming from the accident. The Chinese captain and three crewmembers on the bridge of the Busan at the time of the accident also refused to provide testimony to the NTSB.
The transcripts, which come from voice recordings made by the vessel's voyage data recorder, reveal an anxious situation aboard the bridge with Cota and the vessel's crewmembers worried about the heavy fog.
'I’ve tried to target five times, never plots. That’s not good for fog,' Cota is heard to say as the vessel prepares to leave the Port of Oakland the morning of the accident. The short trip was supposed to take the 900-foot containership under the Bay Bridge to an anchorage in a northern part of the bay.
One crewmember also expresses concern about setting sail under such adverse visibility conditions, saying in Chinese, 'For American ships under such conditions, they would not be under way.'
After the vessel sideswiped the bridge, tearing a 160-foot gash into two of its side fuel tanks, Cota told the vessel's captain, 'Sorry captain, I misunderstood the chart, I thought that was the center,' indicating the center of the 2,200-foot-wide opening between the bridge footings.
Several minutes later, Cota, realizing the seriousness of the incident, indicated regret for leaving the port in the first place.
'Yeah, it’s foggy, I shouldn’t have gone. It’s still, uh ' I’m not going to do well on this one.'
The transcripts also reveal that in the minutes after the accident, Cota and the captain of the Busan began blaming each other for the collision.
'You said this was the center of the bridge,' Cota tells the captain as they look over charts.
After the captain replies in the affirmative, Cota tells him, 'No, this is the center. That’s the tower. This is the tower. That’s why we hit it. I thought that was the center.' The recorder picked up the Busan's captain telling another crewmember in Chinese just a moment later: 'What I said to him was not incorrect. This is the center of the bridge, not of the channel. As the pilot you should know full well.'
Cota, talking to someone by cell phone, is heard to say, 'Then he said, 'Oh, no, these are the lights for the center of the bridge. These red things.' I know — I mean I should know — this.'
Officials from the local U.S. Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Service were also called to testify, telling the panel that while the VTS did contact Cota about his errant course before the collision, it did not further warn Cota out of concern for distracting him as the Busan quickly approached the bridge. Hampered by the heavy fog and imprecise radar, the VTS officers were left to watch as the event unfolded.
'We almost predicted ' it was almost a prediction that we expected to get the call that he had hit the bridge,' Coast Guard watch supervisor Mark Perez told the NTSB panel.
The panel continues today, reviewing medical and performance oversight of Cota and the role that the local pilot association and its California state government oversight authorities played in the incident. ' Keith Higginbotham