NTSB reviews cause of Texas ship collision, spill

September 27, 2011 - 3:15 AM

HOUSTON (AP) — Federal transportation safety officials were set to release their findings Tuesday about what caused last year's collision between a towboat and a tanker, sparking the largest Texas oil spill in more than two decades.

The National Transportation Safety Board was meeting in Washington to issue its final report on the Jan. 22, 2010, collision in Port Arthur of the tanker Eagle Otome and towboat Dixie Vengeance.

The collision breached the tanker and spilled an estimated 462,000 gallons of oil into the Sabine-Neches Ship Channel. The heavily traveled channel was forced to be closed, and the spill killed some marine life. No humans were injured.

It was the largest spill in Texas since 1990, when a Norwegian tanker spilled 4.3 million gallons about 60 miles off Galveston. The state typically has about 800 spills a year, but nearly all involve less than one barrel, according to the Texas land office.

Testimony and evidence presented at a U.S. Coast Guard hearing in Port Arthur showed that poor visibility and strong winds may have been factors in the accident. A result, the tanker apparently failed to center itself in the narrow waterway.

The pilots of both vessels were aware they were close to each other, but audio recordings and testimony indicate they initially thought they would be able to pass one another safely. Moments before the collision, they had a calm conversation and even shared an off-color joke.

But Capt. Pallava Shukla, master of the Eagle Otome tanker that morning, testified he became increasingly concerned about the ship's situation and had noticed it was having difficulty recovering from strong winds pushing the vessel too far to the west side of the narrow channel. That side is reserved for oncoming vessels, he said.

Visibility, Shukla testified, was "very, very" poor and he noticed at one point the ship was turning too sharply and tried to help the pilot correct the angle.

There were two pilots aboard the tanker, as is mandatory when maneuvering such ships through the narrow waterway. One pilot, Capt. Charles Bancroft, testified that he told the tugboat he was heading toward a bridge.

Bancroft said the weather initially appeared normal, but that the forces in the channel turned out to be some of the strongest he'd faced. Maneuvers that had worked previously — increasing rudder speed and pushing the engine to increase water flow around the ship — didn't work this time, Bancroft said.

Finally, when it became clear the tanker was getting too close to the tugboat, Bancroft said he ordered the engine stopped and the anchor thrown — a last ditch effort to bring the ship to a sudden stop and prevent the collision. After giving the order, Bancroft said he went outside to see how close they were to the tugboat. People were yelling and running around, he said.