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Texas tanker crashed due to pilot fatigue, investigators say

September 27, 2011 | 12:01 pm

Eagle Otome 
Federal investigators say fatigue, improper communication and other errors — including a pilot reading a newspaper while navigating — contributed to a ship crash last year that caused the largest Texas oil spill in more than 20 years.

There were two pilots aboard the oil tanker Eagle Otome when it crashed into a tugboat. Two pilots are required when maneuvering such ships through the narrow waterway. Investigators believe the first pilot's untreated sleep disorder combined with an irregular work schedule made him so tired that he was unable to center the ship in the narrow waterway while his counterpart was distracted by the paper.

"I don't think that's the professional behavior we expect of people. He's not there to read the paper," Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said at a Tuesday hearing in Washington, according to the Associated Press. "The pilots were not acting as a team. They were acting as two individuals who happened to be on board the same ship."

The board plans to release its final report on the Jan. 22, 2010, collision in Port Arthur of the tanker and the towboat Dixie Vengeance. The collision caused oil to spill from the tanker into the Sabine-Neches Ship Channel, closing the busy waterway for five days. No one was injured, and only a few birds were harmed, investigators said.

The spill was the largest in Texas since 1990, when a Norwegian tanker spilled 4.3 million gallons about 60 miles off the coast of Galveston. The state has about 800 spills a year. Most involve less than a barrel of oil, according to the Texas General Land Office.

Investigators told the board they were satisfied with the oil spill response and cleanup, which they said prevented the 462,000 gallon spill from spreading.

Testimony and evidence presented at earlier Coast Guard hearings indicated 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, according to the Associated Press.


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-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston

Photo: In this Jan. 26, 2010, file photo a tarp hangs over the broken hull of the Eagle Otome tanker ship in the Intracoastal Waterway in Port Arthur, Texas, four days after a collision that investigators say was caused by fatigue, improper communication and other distractions. Credit: Associated Press