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Pilot Fatigue Contributed to Collision and Oil Spill

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation team adopted the final report on the Jan. 23, 2010 collision in Port Arthur of the tanker Eagle Otome and towboat Dixie Vengeance that led to the largest Texas oil spill in more than two decades, according to federal transportation investigators.

At about 9:30 a.m. Saturday morning, the Eagle Otome, carrying 570,000 barrels of crude oil, collided with the outbound barge, tearing open one of the Eagle Otome’s cargo tanks. According to the Coast Guard up to 450,000 gallons of oil spilled into the waterway.

The spill was the largest in Texas since 1990, when a Norwegian tanker spilled 4.3 million gallons about 60 miles off Galveston.

The NTSB concluded that pilot fatigue, improper communication and other distractions contributed to the Eagle Otome collision with the towboat Dixie Vengeance breached the tanker and spilled an estimated 462,000 gallons of oil into the Sabine-Neches Ship Channel.

ABC News reports:
The board said the Eagle Otome’s pilot failed to regain full control of the ship after improperly taking a turn before the accident. The investigators believe fatigue contributed to his difficulties steering and centering the ship in the narrow channel.

The NTSB concluded the tanker’s pilots were not following communication guidelines put in place by the local pilots’ association. They also violated rules that said one pilot should be navigating and steering the ship while the other handled radio communications. Instead, they took turns, simultaneously conducting both tasks. At one point, the Eagle Otome pilot was on a radio call “at a critical point in the waterway, and the radio call interfered with his ability to fully focus” on navigating the ship, according to a synopsis of the report.

Deseret News reports:
Investigators found that the second pilot was reading a newspaper before the collision. During the hearing in Washington, some NTSB members wondered if he could have helped prevent the accident if he hadn’t been distracted.

The presiding officer of the Sabine Pilots’ Association disagrees that the pilots were fatigued.

“The greatest lesson perhaps that we can draw from this accident is that guidelines and procedures are in place for a reason,” NTSB Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman said.