A cargo ship pilot testified yesterday that he radioed another ship that it was heading toward him in the wrong lane of the channel off Norfolk shortly before the two vessels collided, spilling 30,000 gallons of oil into Chesapeake Bay.
"She's not going to make it, Jack. I'm sorry," the other pilot replied, according to Capt. John A. Jones of the Neptune Jade, who testified on the opening day of a joint Coast Guard-National Transportation Safety Board hearing on the accident.
The crash of the two ships during a Sunday night squall ruptured the 140,000-gallon fuel tank of the Columbus America. Coast Guard officials said the 635-foot Columbus America, which had been heading into port, apparently was in the wrong lane of the shipping channel when it collided with the 800-foot Neptune Jade, which was headed out to sea.
The hearing is scheduled to continue today with testimony from the other pilot, the Columbus America's Capt. Richard L. Counselman Jr. Neither agency is expected to issue findings for several months.
Coast Guard officials repeated earlier statements that environmental damage apparently was minimal, but asked recreational boaters to stay out of the Elizabeth River, which winds through downtown Norfolk, because of oily waters.
The Virginia Department of Health issued an advisory to fishermen in the Elizabeth River and along Norfolk beaches to check their catches for signs of contamination. Beaches in the city's Ocean View section were reopened to swimmers yesterday.
The West German owners of the Columbus America have agreed to pay for the cleanup, but have not admitted responsibility. Drug and alcohol tests on both ships' pilots, routinely performed after an accident, proved negative.
Jones, 37, a pilot for 17 years, told the hearing that when he saw the Columbus America on his radar, he radioed the other ship with a warning to veer out of the way. He said the other pilot radioed back that he had been having trouble with smaller ships and knew he was too far north, United Press International reported.
Suddenly, the Columbus America appeared out of the fog 650 feet to 1,000 feet away, according to an Associated Press account. Jones said he ordered a hard turn of the Neptune Jade, but it was too late.
"I believe the Columbus America was way too far to the north," Jones said when asked his opinion of the reason for the collision. "He was well out of position."
In an interview with the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, Counselman said he had veered north to avoid smaller ships, but his instruments showed he had returned to the correct position in the outbound lane when the collision occurred.
Coast Guard officials, who closed the shipping channel for four hours Monday to aid cleanup efforts, said they would not restrict Independence Day boating on the Elizabeth River, but asked recreational vessels to stay away.
"We're asking people if they want to come and watch the fireworks to bring a lawn chair instead of a boat," said Petty Officer First Class Richard L. Woods, a Coast Guard spokesman.