At Mississippi River Oil Spill Hearing, Testimony from Mel Oliver Deckhands Conflicts

The Coast Guard hearing into last summer’s <"">Mississippi River oil spill continued yesterday, with a deckhand testifying that the towboat Mel Oliver was in poor physical condition at the time of the accident.  David LeBlanc also offered an account of events aboard the Mel Oliver that conflicted with that given by the vessel’s other deckhand last week.

The Mississippi River oil spill occurred on July 23 when the tanker Tintomara and a barge carrying 419,000 gallons of oil – being towed by the Mel Oliver – collided. The barge split in half, spilling much of its cargo into the river. It is estimated that about 280,000 gallons of oil actually spilled into the Mississippi.  The spill was the worst to ever occur on the lower Mississippi River.

The Coast Guard hearing into the spill is now in its fifth week.  Last week, John Bavaret, the pilot operating the Mel Oliver when the spill occurred, told the hearing that he was filling in for the ship’s captain, who had gone ashore to visit his girlfriend. Bavaret said he was busy fixing the Mel Oliver’s malfunctioning radar at the time of the collision,  and it was only when he heard a warning from the Tintomara that he realized the tanker was heading straight for the barge being towed by the Mel Oliver.

The hearing also heard from Mel Oliver deckhand Kevin Pettigrew last week.  Pettigrew testified that right after collision, the state in which found  Bavaret indicated that he could have been asleep at the helm.  Pettigrew said he had to lift Bavaret from the captain’s chair so that he could take control of the Mel Oliver and steer it to safety.

But deckhand David LeBlanc said yesterday that he did not remember Bavaret being in such a state.  Right after the collision, LeBlanc said he reported to the wheelhouse to find Bavaret.  While Bavaret did not respond right away, LeBlanc said when he did, he was composed.  LeBlanc described Bavaret moving around the vessel and even steering the Mel Oliver after the accident. He also recalled Bavaret saying that he did not see the approaching ship and had problems with the steering. LeBlanc said he did not recall  Pettigrew removing Bavaret from the captain’s chair.

LeBlanc also testified that the Mel Oliver’s captain, Terry Carver, had been preoccupied with his girlfriend the days before he abandoned his post.  LeBlanc recalled that Carver monitored his girlfriend with a computer tracking system while steering the Mel Oliver.

In addition to LeBlanc, the  hearing also took testimony from Coast Guard inspector Harvey Bates.  He testified that the steering system of the Mel Oliver may have been jammed by debris strewn inside a lower cabin of the vessel.  He said the junk could have shifted and lodged against parts of the steering system that ran through the cabin. Bavaret had said last week that he was unable to steer the Mel Oliver out of the way of the Tintomara, despite repeated radio calls warning of the danger, because the steering apparatus was stuck.

During yesterday’s proceeding, Melissa Harper, the Coast Guard’s investigating officer, presented photographs of the Mel Oliver that showed the cabin was a mess.  In the photos, rags were strewn around the floor to sop up leaking oil.

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