GALVESTON, Texas -- A pilot of one of two vessels that collided in the Houston Ship Channel earlier this year, spilling nearly 170,000 gallons of oil in the Houston Ship Channel, said Monday visibility was restricted by fog but his tugboat's lights were on and conditions weren't especially treacherous when he turned over the ship's wheel to his captain shortly before the accident.
"If it were to get more restricted, I would have turned on the fog whistle," Capt. Joseph Downs, testifying at a Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board hearing on the March 22 collision, said.
No injuries were reported when the towing vessel collided with a cargo ship but the spilled oil coated the shoreline of the southern end of Galveston Bay and flowed into the Gulf of Mexico. Oil traces were found more than 200 miles down the coast.
The accident also snarled traffic for five days along the ship channel, which serves the nation's largest petrochemical complex.
The hearing on the collision is to take all week. About 10 witnesses are expected to testify.
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Teresa Hatfield, the lead investigating officer, said the panel will gather information to determine a cause for the collision, find out whether a material failure, misconduct or negligence was responsible and make recommendations to keep it from happening again.
John Kurukawa, with the National Transportation Safety Board, said his agency was looking into similar matters and would produce its own findings.
Downs, a pilot for about three years, said he was relieved by his more experienced superior, Capt. Kelli Hartman, who voluntarily took over nearly an hour before Downs' stint in the wheelhouse of the vessel Miss Susan was to end.
He said he briefed Hartman about conditions and other traffic in the normally busy waterway between Texas City and Galveston, including the presence of the ship Summer Wind that was leaving anchor, and headed to the galley. The tug and its two barges were travelling about 6 miles per hour.
Downs said he was in the galley when he heard the 1,800-horsepower engines change sound and decided to go back to the bridge.
"I heard the boat go astern and became curious," he said under questioning by Coast Guard Capt. Les Ledet. "More of a curiosity, not a safety concern at the time."
The two barges that were being pulled by the Houston-based Kirby Inland Marine-owned tugboat had been leaving Texas City and heading for the Intracoastal Waterway. The inbound Summer Wind, owned by Liberia-based Sea Galaxy, 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.
Hartman was "collected" when Downs re-entered the wheelhouse, he said.
Asked about his conversation with her at the time, Downs replied, "I don't remember. Capt. Hartman had a lot going on."
Hartman was expected to testify at the hearing on Tuesday.
Kirby has said court filings the Summer Wind was speeding and being operated in a reckless manner. Sea Galaxy has said in court filings the collision wasn't its fault.