Cosco Busan pilot John Cota has invoked his right under the 5th Amendment of the US Constitution, which protects accused persons from self-incrimination, not to appear at the US National Transportation Safety Board hearings which start on 8th April. Through lawyers, he claims that VTS personnel were betting on whether the 65,131 tonnes container ship would hit the San Francisco -Oakland Bay Bridge on November 7, 2007.
Sideswiping the bridge’s fenders, a gash was opened in the ship’s side that resulted in a 55,000 gallon spill of fuel oil.
The two-day public NTSB hearings will follow a 7th April conference to fix the final agenda. NTSB Chairman Mark V. Rosenker, who will chair the hearing says, “This accident presents the Board with many questions, such as: Was the Cosco Busan’s bridge navigation equipment working properly? Was there adequate oversight of the San Francisco bar pilot? Did the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Service exert the appropriate level of control over the Cosco Busan?”
A further issue may be the possible effect of medication being taken by Cota for sleep apnea.
Cota’s lawyers claim that the Coast Guard VTS service could have avoided the accident but did not clearly communicate their concern to Cota and that VTS personnel discussed and took bets on whether the Cosco Busan would hit the bridge, based on “waterfront rumours”. The letter also says that the Coast Guard did not warn mariners about the fog and that Cota “… prevented a worse catastrophe by his clear and cool thinking.”
Cota faces prosecution for two misdemeanors under the Clean Water Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. If found guilty, Cota could face a one year prison sentence or fines totalling $115,000. Some six members of the Cosco Busan crew, who have not been charged are in detention as ‘material witnesses’ pending Cota’s trial.
The Board of Pilot Commissioners for the Bays of San Francisco, San Pablo and Suisun has charged Cota with misconduct and the US Coast Guard has demanded his Merchant Marine Officer’s license because it “believes he is not physically competent to maintain the license.”
Regardless of the results of Cota’s trial or the NTSB hearing, the incident will throw the spotlight on the relationship between Pilot and Master, recently the subject of a Maritime Executive editorial, As pointed out in the responses to that item, the pilkot, at least under US law, is more than merely an adviser, a master is required to obey the pilot, and the bridge crew are required to obey the pilot as if he was the master, unless there is clear indication of the pilot’s incapacity or incompetence.
By which it’s usually too late.