Talking with the Exxon Valdez's captain, 25 years later

CNN
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Monday, March 24, 2014 - 3:35pm

25 years ago today, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck a reef and spilled about 11 million gallons of oil into the waters off Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

That spill is the biggest tanker spill in American history.

We asked Captain Joseph Hazelwood to walk us through the events of 25 years ago, in a simulator at his alma mater, the state university of New York Maritime College.

(Reporter): Take me back to that moment, back to a chain of events that began after the Exxon Valdez left port, with

Hazelwood’s decision to change course; he was worried about ice from the Columbia glacier.

Large chunks had broken off, and floated into the shipping lanes.

(Reporter): Where would it have been on the radar?

(Joe): It would have been coming out of here. In this position here.

(Reporter): What did you tell the Coast Guard at this point?

(Joe): I said there's ice in the lanes. I request permission or protocol to cross over into the separation zone.

(Reporter): And the Coast Guard said: Roger that?

(Joe): Yup, no problem. Two ships prior to me had done it.

Although the Coast Guard was listening, it was not watching.

Even though its radar could have tracked the ship, there was no requirement to look more than 6 miles out.

Exxon Valdez was 8.

(Reporter): So you didn't even know you were off Coast Guard radar.

(Joe): I assumed. I'm not sure where their range went to. But I assumed I was on it. I assumed they had that range.

Captain Hazelwood then made a decision that would doom the ship.

After the Exxon Valdez passed the ice, he turned the bridge over to the third mate, with instructions to turn back into the shipping lane.

"I went down to my office. I had some paperwork to fill out and I wanted to look at the latest weather," Captain Hazelwood explained.

The third mate called Hazelwood, and said he was turning.

But what happened next remains a mystery.

The third mate and the helmsman at the wheel both say they followed orders.

But, whether it was miscommunication or poor navigation, the Exxon Valdez did not turn back into the shipping lane when it was supposed to.

"The turn was initiated, it was just initiated late."

So late that the ship ran aground on Bligh reef.

(Reporter): What do you think happened?

(Joe): I don't know. Sad to say I wasn't there.

CNN'S documentary on the Exxon Valdez oil spill, "Oil and Water, The Wreck of the Exxon Valdez" hosted by Kyra Phillips, airs at 10 p.m., on Tuesday, March 25.

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