Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"What am I going to do, write a book about a guy missing a turn?"

Wherein choose your words, paint the picture you want to paint

The Exxon Valdez is before the Supreme Court today, over an argument concerning punitive damages. Nina Totenberg, on NPR, reported that
"[Hazelwood] abandoned the bridge during the treacherous crossing" and added a few old sound clips from Exxon executives admitting that, yes, Hazelwood was drunk at the time. Sounded like Totenberg was arguing the case against Exxon instead of reporting the facts. At least as I recall the facts. On the case itself, I have no opinion at this time. For Captain Hazelwood, I have a little more information.

Let's start with the more evenhanded Associated Press description:
The 987-foot tanker, commanded by its captain, Joseph Hazelwood, missed a turn and ran aground on a reef in Prince William Sound, causing the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Missed a turn, that's it? Why no scary words like "abandoned" and "treacherous"? Oh yeah, just in case anyone has forgotten -- like Nina Totenberg -- Captain Joseph Hazelwood was acquitted of most of the charges. NY Times, March 28, 1990:
Capt. Joseph J. Hazelwood's acquittal on the most serious charges against him complicates the question of legal responsibility for the Exxon Valdez oil spill and how the Exxon Corporation will fare in pending civil litigation, lawyers in the cases say.

Captain Hazelwood, skipper of the Exxon Valdez when she struck a reef and spilled 10.8 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound a year ago last Saturday, was found guilty on Thursday of negligently discharging oil, a misdemeanor. He was acquitted on the more serious charges of criminal mischief, reckless endangerment and operating a water craft under the influence of alcohol.

At a news conference the morning after the verdict, Adm. Paul A. Yost Jr., the Coast Guard Commandant, attributed the spill to human error. ''It happened because a fully qualified third mate ran the tanker aground,'' he said. Captain Hazelwood was in his cabin when the ship grounded.

The captain's lawyers, among others, have accused the Coast Guard of failing to keep a closer watch on the tanker.

Mr. Baily, the Attorney General, said the state pressed charges against Captain Hazelwood because he was ''the peak of responsibility,'' although Exxon shared that status. ''There have been 8,000 captains before him'' who successfully traversed Prince William Sound, Mr. Baily said. ''He couldn't do it.''

But the jury declined to affix total responsibility on Captain Hazelwood. ''It was a combination of events'' that caused the spill, said one juror. ''No one person was solely the cause.''

It's true that in 1994, another jury wasn't so generous (NY Times). Though if I'm reading this correctly, it was a civil suit, not a criminal trial:
In a verdict that could have striking economic implications for the world's largest oil company, a Federal jury said today that the Exxon Corporation was reckless when it permitted a captain with a history of alcohol abuse to command a supertanker.

The jury also determined that the captain, Joseph J. Hazelwood, was himself negligent and reckless when he drank heavily on the afternoon before the Exxon Valdez strayed off course in the dangerous waters of Alaska's Prince William Sound and ran aground on March 24, 1989, causing North America's worst oil tanker spill.

The same article also mentions:
In 1991, the Coast Guard also acquitted Mr. Hazelwood of charges that he was impaired while commanding the Exxon Valdez. The Coast Guard, though, suspended Mr. Hazelwood's license for nine months for leaving the tanker's bridge at a critical moment. Mr. Hazelwood's license has since been reinstated, and, according to his testimony here, he is a paid employee of the New York office of one of his lawyers, Michael Chalos. Exxon is paying Mr. Hazelwood's legal fees.

Let's review,
  1. A civil jury finds him negligent, but doesn't say he was drunk at the time of the accident.
  2. In the first criminal trial, he is acquitted by an Alaskan jury.
  3. The Coast Guard also acquits him, though he is suspended for "leaving" the bridge.

Leaving does not sound like abandoned. Does it, Nina? Nina? Crap, my direct line to Nina Totenberg and NPR seems to be down. I look forward to her response later in the day.

I've mentioned this before, that one of my favorite magazine articles was about Joseph Hazelwood. In the October 1997 issue of Outside magazine, Daniel Coyle wrote The Captain Went Down with the Ship. For my money, Coyle is a much better reporter than Totenberg. She usually does a decent job of explaining both sides of a Supreme Court case, which doesn't require her to do much more than translate into nonlegalize. She's not exactly a paragon of original reporting.

Coyle, with Hazelwood, and the oh so scary, treacherous, crossing:
We're in the Seamen's Church Institute, a tidy brick building in lower Manhattan that serves as a training center for merchant mariners. We've come here at my request from the midtown law office where Hazelwood works to take a spin in the bridge simulator. This full-scale, state-of-the-art device has been set up to replicate the conditions at midnight, March 23, 1989, a few moments before the Exxon Valdez bellied-up on Bligh Reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound and began disgorging 11 million gallons of crude oil, obliterating life on 1,244 miles of coastline, and forever altering the way in which we view the vulnerability of our wild places. Instantly overlaid by myth, the spill has become crystallized in the public imagination as the archetypal catastrophe, Captain Joseph Jeffrey Hazelwood its archetypal cause.

The captain is nothing if not punctual, so we arrived at five o'clock, exactly on schedule, and waited a few minutes while the simulator's operator booted up its Valdez program. Hazelwood was eager to get started: In order to catch his 6:24 train home to Huntington, Long Island, he calculated that he must depart here at 5:45, no later. Now, as our facsimile tanker approaches the facsimile reef, he steps comfortably around the bridge, eyeing the engine-order telegraph, tweaking the radar, confidently adjusting the dials and knobs. Satisfied, he steps back and checks his watch: 5:35.

Beyond the frames of five bridge windows, the mountains of Prince William Sound part to reveal a passage ten miles wide. Ahead, the monolithic main deck of the supertanker recedes toward the horizon. Winds are calm, skies dark, visibility eight miles. We've left the shipping lanes, just as the Exxon Valdez departed them in order to avoid ice. Off the starboard bow, a tiny red light pulses once every four seconds; Bligh Reef buoy. Radar shows that we're passing Busby Island, the spot where the tanker was to have begun its starboard turn back into the shipping lanes. An SCI captain named James Fitzpatrick, who has been informed of Hazelwood's time restriction, mans the helm.

"The moment of truth," Hazelwood says flatly. "Give me right 20."

"Right two-zero, Cap," says Fitzpatrick.

The ship begins to swing. Hazelwood does not look to the radar screen for proof; he waits to see it, as he later says, "to feel the turn." The red buoy light begins to slide across the windows, imperceptibly at first, then with silken rapidity. After two minutes, during which time we've advanced a bare seven-tenths of a mile, our 1,000-foot, 250,000-ton virtual supertanker -- weighing 40,000 tons more than the Exxon Valdez -- has turned on a dime. The buoy bobs innocuously off our port side. We've missed Bligh Reef by more than two miles.

Eyes on the horizon, Hazelwood speaks. "That's all you'd have to do. That's all anybody would have had to do."

And finally, some good advice from Hazelwood. Some advice I'm thinking a certain baseball pitcher might be wishing he'd taken heed of.
On our final visit, he will tell me, "If there's one thing I've learned from this experience, it would be this: If you're ever in any kind of a touchy situation, do not say a word to anyone. Words can only hurt you."

The moment the Exxon Valdez touched Bligh Reef, Hazelwood's silence began. He gave no statements, permitted few interviews, declined to testify at the National Transportation Safety Board hearings and his 1990 criminal trial. "Hermetically sealed" was the term his lawyers used, and their obedient client disappeared onto the front page. His silence rescued Exxon, which needed a bogeyman; the press, which needed a reason; and the public, which needed a way to think about the unthinkable. He became a two-dimensional figure in a Puritan allegory, proof of the American theorem that history is character writ large. He evolved into a type, a handy referent for the loose cannon, the dangerous idiot. (Letterman's Top Ten Joe Hazelwood Excuse: "I was just trying to scrape some ice off the reef for my margarita.") The artistic pinnacle of the Hazelwood oeuvre was his nonspeaking role as divine idol of the Smokers, the scraggly, jet-skiing globe-wreckers of Kevin Costner's soggy 1995 future-pic Waterworld. "Be patient, Saint Joe, we're close," Dennis Hopper whispers reverentially to a gilt-framed portrait of the resolute-looking captain. "After centuries of shame, we're almost there."

The few times that Hazelwood was quoted in the aftermath of the spill, he said nothing to vindicate himself or show remorse. When the judge in his criminal trial asked for an apology, Hazelwood declined. When Connie Chung asked if he could declare his innocence before a national television audience, he said he could say nothing either way about the case. He displayed a clinical detachment from what everybody else was fiercely concerned with: the otters, the salmon, the ecosystem of Prince William Sound, the spill's larger role as harkening call, along with the widening ozone hole and the disappearing rainforests, to the environmental movement's early-decade shift to center stage in the American consciousness.

Hazelwood seemed oblivious to the fact that his silence forever condemned him in the minds of many, oblivious to the proven truth of the political maxim that it's not the accusation, it's how you handle the accusation that matters. Among friends and acquaintances, the silence engendered much speculation. Was it guilt? Pride? Shame? Denial? Was he protecting someone? But to hear Hazelwood tell it, the matter is simpler: There's nothing to say.

"What am I going to do, write a book about a guy missing a turn?" His eyebrows arch cartoonily. "Books have a hero. I'm just a regular guy caught in a situation. There's a perception out there, and all the spin doctors in the world can't fix that perception. I'm not a bubbly person. I don't have an inner child I'm beating up. Go on Oprah? I just don't have it in me. The people who know me know what I'm about."

Occasionally, however, the shell of equanimity shows a few cracks. Though our time together has its agreed-upon boundaries (no questions about his actions leading up to the spill, no interviews with his wife or college-age daughter, no visits to his home), Hazelwood shows an increasing willingness to broach the accident and his feelings toward it. At those moments, which usually take place during his 20-minute walk from Penn Station to the office, his voice takes on the nasal, syncopated patois of middle-class Long Island. An unabashed bibliophile (another shipboard habit), he tosses off quotes from Oscar Wilde, Albert Einstein, Stonewall Jackson, Beryl Markham, and does a passable Bill Murray impression. The rhythm of the walk takes over, he's carried along in the hot swell of humanity, and for once his words flow unencumbered.

"You know, this thing happened the same spring as Tiananmen Square," he says, stopping to carefully stub out a cigarette. "That was big news for a day -- then it was back to our regularly scheduled slamming of Captain Hazelwood. A year later you got Saddam dumping 40 million barrels of oil -- 150 times what was spilled in Prince William Sound -- and he's setting the country on fire, and the guy's still getting better press than me?" On his fingers, he ticks off other accidents and tragedies that received less attention, including many larger oil spills that were virtually ignored by the press. "The way the media handles disasters is out of proportion. Like a friend of mine said after TWA Flight 800 went down: 'Good thing there weren't any fucking otters on board.'"

Then we're outside his building, in the shadow of its steel and smoked glass. "I've learned to keep my emotions out of it," he says, regaining his equilibrium. "This is a business, and emotions cloud your judgment. This is a technical problem, basically, and it's got to be dealt with in a technical way. Besides, it's like Eddie Murphy said in Trading Places: 'I'm a Karate Man รน I bleed on the inside.'" He opens the door and smiles his good-guy smile, and it is utterly unconvincing.

What can I say, I like the guy.


Blogger Icepick said...

Wow, that really was an excellent article in Outside magazine. And this was also a very fine post.

2/27/2008 10:30:00 AM  
Blogger bill said...

Thanks. You might also enjoy Coyle's profile of Ted Nugent.

He also wrote a very good book about Lance Armstrong, along with a few other books I haven't read.

2/27/2008 11:21:00 AM  
Blogger bill said...

Want to know what game The Child and I were playing last night? Halunken und Spelunken:

each captain has only eight hours (eight game rounds), to search the dockside taverns and "recruit" enough drunken sailors to complete their crews.

2/27/2008 11:36:00 AM  

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