Tug boat captain testifies in Coast Guard hearings for Galveston oil spill

By Phil Archer - Reporter

GALVESTON, Texas - Testifying before Coast Guard marine casualty investigators in Galveston today, the captains of the two vessels involved in a collision that caused a massive oil spill in the Houston ship channel last March cited bad visibility and speed as factors in the accident.

The cargo ship Summer Wind collided with an oil filled barge towed by the tugboat, Miss Susan,March 22. 168,000 gallons of oil was dumped into the Houston Ship Channel near its mouth, fouling beaches as far south as Matagorda Island, and coating hundreds of birds and other wildlife.

Capt. Kelli Ann Hartman commanded the tugboat. She left Texas City bound for Pt. Bolivar that morning towing two barges filed with crude oil.

Her course required crossing the ship channel west to east. Visibility was bad with patchy to heavy fog Hartman said she could only see about a quarter mile past her barges. So she made radio contact with other ships nearby.

She said she didn't talk to the cargo ship Summer Wind, which she noticed on radar about three miles away, because it didn't appear to be a threat. But as the ship got closer, it's speed became a concern.

"I assumed he knew I was crossing," she said, "and that's what really threw me, his speed kept increasing."

Capt. Michael Pizzitola had gone aboard the Summer Wind that morning to guide the ship into port. He said he increased speed because an unusually strong flood tide made it difficult to maneuver.

He said he was making about 12 knots headed up the channel. He said he saw the Miss Susan on an electronic plotting device, but didn't expect the tug to cross in front of him because it was traveling at only about half the speed he estimated it needed to cross the channel safely.

"At 3 1/2 knots," Pizzatola told investigators, "I didn't believe she would ever come across that ship channel and block me off."

Hartman, said she would have had time to cross the channel pushing two barges but was surprised to see on electronic tracking devices that the freighter had increased its speed from 10 knots, or about 11½ mph, to 12 or 13 knots. The situation was exacerbated by fog, the flood tide current and the presence of two other vessels in the waterway.

"I did everything I could to get out of his way," said Hartman, who's spent more than three decades on boats.

Pizzitola, with more than 40 years of experience, insisted his speed was necessary to maintain steering on a day when the currents were stronger than usual, but acknowledged a portable electronic navigation device was malfunctioning, that he wasn't monitoring all usual radio channels where transmissions about Hartman's tug and barges were broadcast and was immersed in using the radar on his ship to guide it into the channel.

When Hartman called him, the tug was less than eight-tenths of a mile ahead. Then he emerged from a fog bank, a "ghost fog," he called it.

"I hollered, 'Hard to starboard, full astern,'" he said. His ship would have required at least a mile to stop, Pizzitola said.

His next command: "Stop engines," he said. "The collision happened."

The accident also snarled traffic for five days along the ship channel, which serves the nation's largest petrochemical complex.

The panel led by Hatfield is gathering information to determine a cause for the collision and make recommendations to keep it from happening again.

The tug and its two barges were leaving Texas City and heading for the Intracoastal Waterway. The Summer Wind was heading inbound through the Houston Ship Channel. The collision happened when the barges made a left turn to enter the Intracoastal Waterway and were crossing the ship channel.

Asked if she felt there was anything she could have done to prevent the collision, Hartman told investigators:

"I would have done the same thing that I did with the info I had available." she said. Pizzitola said much the same.

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