The U.S. Coast Guard on Friday suggested that bungled communications among the ship's crew may have led to Wednesday's collision of the Cosco Busan cargo ship with the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
Meanwhile, the attorney representing the pilot said that his client was not to blame.
Capt. John Cota, a licensed bar pilot who helped the ship maneuver in the bay, also said in a three-page written statement, given to the Coast Guard on Thursday, that no clean-up vessels appeared for at least an hour and a half after the 8:30 a.m. incident, despite authorities being notified of the incident within minutes.
Coast Guard officials insisted they responded as quickly as they could, and said an oil skimmer was on the scene by 10 a.m.
Cota wrote that after the ship anchored off Treasure Island shortly after the collision, he noticed an oil sheen on the water and "instantly reported that to VTS." A replacement pilot who came aboard to relieve Cota after the shipanchored near Treasure Island also "immediately started notifying various agencies that deal with oil spills," Cota wrote.
The ship headed to the Treasure Island anchorage to immediately transfer enough fuel out of the damaged tank, to below the water line, to stop the leak, authorities said, and no further fuel is believed to have leaked when the ship was sent to a second anchorage south of the bridge later in the morning.
John Meadows, Cota's attorney, said his client left the ship about 10 a.m. and went to the bar pilot's headquarters for drug and alcohol testing, to meet the two-hour test requirement window after accidents. The results of both tests are negative, Meadows said.
"At the time I left the ship, no oil spill equipment was on location," Cota wrote. Meadows acknowledged that Cota initially refused a Coast Guard interview Wednesday morning, because his lawyer was not available. The nearly four-hour interview, with Meadows present, was done 26 hours after the incident, on Thursday morning.
On Friday, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the Fort Mason cleanup command center for a briefing on the incident and to ensure that all agencies were working together.
At one point he looked at a map and wondered aloud "How did a ship with that much space available . . hit the bridge?"
U.S. Coast Guard Capt. William Uberti responded, "That's what we're investigating," adding, "That should not happen."
The governor also signed an emergency proclamation to free up state funds and agencies to work on cleanup.
As the oil slick spread further around the bay and 10 miles outside Golden Gate, with gooey patches hitting beaches and forcing the closing of Berkeley Marina, state officials said the oil may be visible for some time.
The count of oil-soaked birds continues to grow and is expected to reach several hundred if not into the thousands over the next few days. As of Friday afternoon, 94 live birds with oil contaminaiton had been covered, and 28 had been found dead.
Meadows, Cota's lawyer, would not discuss how the collision occured or release the rest of the statement, but he said Cota is not responsible for the collision. "It was not due to any command of his," Meadows said. "There was a big difference between what he ordered and the heading that the ship took."
On Friday, facing growing criticsm of its handling of the spill, the Coast Guard suggested for the first time that human error may have led to the collision.
"There appears to be bridge management issues with the ship," Uberti said, suggesting that officials are looking into the communications between the ship's officer on watch and helmsman who were on the ship's bridge at the time of the incident. Typically, the pilot gives orders on how the ship is to move, which are passed on to the helmsman by the officer on watch or the ship's own captian.
"It looks like we may have had some problems there," Uberti said.
But the investigation is also looking into broader communications among ship personnel and also between the ship and Bay Area ship traffic controllers, and whether foggy conditions played a role.
After hearing Uberti's statement, Meadows said "it is the right course of action," but would not elaborate. Meadows also said he is not ruling out mechanical error but said Cota does not believe visibility was an issue.
Many officials are still bristling over the Coast Guard's failure to report to the public that a spill, initially reported at 140 gallons, had grown to 58,000 gallons.
U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein on Friday questioned why the Coast Guard waited until Wednesday night, five hours after the agency said it learned the full scope of the spill.
Prompting a rare admission from a federal official, after two days of complaints from Bay Area officials about lack of communication about the spill, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Craig E. Bone called the failure "not acceptable," adding, "We've got to get better about communicating."
But Bone said he wanted to assure the public that response to the cleanup and containment of the oil spill was immediate.
In a letter to Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, who oversees the Coast Guard, Feinstein asked several pointed questions, including whether the Coast Guard has adequate response plans.
The Coast Guard and the contractor hired by the ship owners responded as quickly as they could after being notified of the spill, deploying a skimmer to the scene by 10 a.m.
Coast Guard officials said poor visibility due to fog and strong currents made it difficult to see, let alone contain the spill in the early hours. Aerial analysis only began in mid-afternoon after the fog lifted, and equipment then was moved to stategic locations.
Barry McFarland of O'Brien's Group, the clean-up contractor, said it was impossible to see oil in the water from the boats. "It's like trying to vaccuum in the dark, when you can't see the carpet."
Meanwhile, the spill may curtail many weekend activies. San Francisco has asked recreational boaters not to take their vessels out until at least Tuesday. About a dozen beaches and park shorelines in four counties remain closed, and state officials have closed access to Angel Island completely.
But others looked forward to helping volunteer in the clean-up effort. Responding to a huge demand by Bay Area residents, San Francisco announced Friday it would begin training volunteers to clean up the oil from beaches.
If you are interested: The California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Coast Guard are sponsoring an orientation on volunteer opportunities to support the oil spill response today from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, 99 Grove St., San Francisco.