Sabine Pilots reject NTSB findings

Sabine Pilots reject NTSB findings

The National Transportation Safety Board released the final report of its investigation into the Jan. 23, 2010, collision of the tanker Eagle Otome and Dixie Vengeance towboat in the Sabine-Neches Canal in Port Arthur, drawing conclusions that brought a sharp rebuke from Duane Bennett, presiding officer of the Sabine Pilots Association.

The accident resulted in an estimated 462,000 gallons of oil being spilled into the water, closing the heavily traveled channel for five days. NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman convened a meeting in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23 to determine the probable cause of the accident and to consider proposed safety recommendations.

Hersman asked why, considering the pilots guiding the vessels at the time of the accident were experienced hands who had performed similar functions hundreds of times, the collision occurred that day. The answer from investigators suggested it was not one single factor that caused the accident but cited pilot fatigue and the fact one of two pilots onboard the Eagle Otome was reading the newspaper when the ship got in trouble.

An earlier investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard showed poor visibility and strong winds might have been factors in the accident. At a hearing in Port Arthur in March 2010, it was suggested that as a result of those conditions, the tanker apparently failed to center itself in the narrow waterway. The NTSB investigation rejected that contention, and its report clearly states that weather was not a factor in the accident.

Bennett, who was present at the NTSB hearing in Washington, said, “I was cringing and in shock at some of the things they said. Some of it just confounded me. I think a lot of the problem is these are aviation people; they had one person on their staff that had a marine background; there’s nobody on the board that has a marine background. To try and take aviation and say what they do on an airplane they should do on a ship is completely off track.”

At a teleconference after the NTSB hearing, Hersman said, “I think there are things that are common across all transportation modes — things like fatigue, things like following standard operating procedures — but I also think there are things that are very different.”

In response to a direct question from the Business Journal, Hersman acknowledged “things happen more quickly in aviation but I think the other problem here is that because things do develop more slowly on the maritime side, you have to get ahead of it. It’s not that you have that many more minutes to do it – you have to do it at the right time regardless whether you are on the water or in the air. I think there’s still a precision, knowledge and compliance; all of those things are needed, so I want to be careful not to over-generalize. They are different, for sure, but there are also some similarities here with respect to underlying concepts.”

The NTSB finding that “contrary to pilot association guidelines, the first pilot on the Eagle Otome was conducting a radio call at a critical point in the waterway, and the radio call interfered with his ability to fully focus on conning the vessel” was rebutted by Bennett as incorrect and he said it resulted from the agency’s lack of understanding on how the pilots operate.

“On a ship of that class when there are two pilots onboard,” explained Bennett, “one pilot boards about an hour and a half, two hours before the other one offshore and he brings the vessel in. Once it gets on shore, the second pilot gets on board, relieves that pilot from the duties. The way piloting works, you only have one pilot that is in charge. You don’t delineate (duties) like on an airplane where you have a cockpit with two people sitting right next to each other; it’s a different type of environment, a different type of situation. You have one man in charge of the conning, so when the second pilot gets on board, he takes over the conning and the first pilot basically stands down and goes into a stand-by mode. He’s still on the bridge deck; he’s still available if the other fellow needs him, but he’s not conning, he’s not working. As part of fatigue mitigation, he’s supposed to be relaxing and waiting for his next turn in about an hour and a half to two hours.”

To Bennett, these misunderstandings undermine the NTSB conclusion that pilot fatigue and pilot error were the principal collision cause.

“I don’t want to give too much comment on something like that since the U.S. Coast Guard report is still not out, but plain and simple it was an accident,” he said. “Fatigue, in my mind, had nothing to do with it; it was simply an accident. This particular class of vessels are some of the more tricky handling vessels that come in and out of this waterway. … I really think that had the NTSB looked at that aspect and said ‘yes, it was just an accident’ … they could have really made some good recommendations for maritime safety improvements, but they were interested more in fatigue, which left me still confused.”

Hersman acknowledged the Sabine Pilots have taken steps to improve pilot performance.

“They are looking at how to avert events like this, and I do think that it is critical,” she said. “This is one of the biggest releases that the NTSB has investigated since the Exxon Valdez, so things can go very badly on the water. It may take a little longer for it to develop; they might have been helpless to stop it at some point and they were in some sense, as this thing developed, along for the ride at the very end – they did drop anchor, they did sound the warnings, but they were going to have a collision.”

Missing from the NTSB findings is the overall safety record of the Sabine Pilots, said Bennett. “There are over 6,000 pilot jobs a year on our waterway. … The last pilot-related oil spill in this waterway was 1979, so if you go through the records we had over 150,000 pilot jobs since that last accident. … I really think that speaks for our historical record. The number of ships we move in this waterway, I think we have an excellent safety record.”