Ship's initial crash relay examined

Investigators look at whether the report of a collision that led to an oil spill was downplayed.

Published November 13, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO - Investigators want to know whether a ship pilot under investigation in San Francisco Bay's biggest oil spill in nearly two decades initially played down the damage to his vessel, Coast Guard officials said Monday.

Immediately after the Cosco Busan struck the Bay Bridge last week, Capt. John Cota quickly radioed authorities to report that the vessel had "touched" the bridge, according to investigators.

"Traffic, we just touched the delta span," Cota said, referring to one of four supports beneath the bridge's western section, according to an official with knowledge of the investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing criminal probe.

The impact did not damage the bridge, but it opened a 90-foot gash in the hull of the ship and ruptured its fuel tank, dumping 58,000 gallons into the bay, fouling miles of coastline and killing dozens of shorebirds.

"One of the aspects of the investigation is, were the reports made accurate" after the collision, said Sr. Chief Petty Officer Keith Alholm, a Coast Guard spokesman.

Said Rear Adm. Craig Bone, the top Coast Guard officer in California: "The comments made or the actions taken by individuals are all things that they could be held accountable for."

Federal prosecutors join local, state and federal agencies looking into the cause of the spill, which contaminated the bay, led to the closing of more than 25 beaches and killed hundreds of birds.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which has authority over maritime casualties, began an independent investigation Sunday at the request of the Coast Guard, which is continuing its investigation.

Darrell Wilson, a representative of the ship owner, Regal Stone of Hong Kong, said about possible federal charges, "It's kind of a given there will be, because of the strict liability laws."

Despite increasing the workers and equipment at the site, at least 40,000 gallons of oil continued to spread across the bay Monday.

Information from the New York Times was used in this report.