NORFOLK, JULY 4 -- The pilot of the container ship Columbus America said today he was not in the wrong section of the Hampton Roads channel when his outbound vessel collided with an inbound ship during a storm Sunday night.
"I assumed I was in fine shape and was confident that I would soon see my buoy" marking the southern boundary of the east-west channel, Capt. Richard L. Counselman Jr. told a Coast Guard-National Transportation Safety Board panel investigating the collision, which dumped 30,000 gallons of fuel oil into the Chesapeake Bay.
On Tuesday, the captain of the other ship involved, the Neptune Jade, put the location of the collision at the northern boundary of the 1,800-foot-wide channel.
"My opinion is, I believe the Columbus America was way too far north. How that happened, I do not know. He was well out of position," Capt. John A. Jones said.
Neither ship plotted the exact position of the accident.
The collision occurred during a rain squall with 40-knot winds from the north and visibility severely limited.
Counselman said he was forced to steer north of his planned course as he exited the harbor to avoid an outbound tugboat and a sailboat.
He said he did not call Jones on the radio and say that the Columbus America was too far north in the channel, nor did he say, prior to impact, "She's not going to make it, Jack. I'm sorry," as Jones testified on Tuesday.
The course recorders from the two ships were sent to the NTSB in Washington for analysis, according to the Coast Guard.
Meanwhile, Coast Guard officials said today that much of the oil cleanup was completed but "we still have a lot of work left on the Elizabeth River," according to Capt. Eugene K. Johnson, commander of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office here. The river winds through downtown Norfolk.
Johnson said it will take several weeks to clean the shoreline of the river's eastern and southern branches. "We've pretty much picked up all the loose oil. All that remains are pockets of oil under piers and along shore pilings. That is going to take a while to clean up," he said.
Johnson said the environmental impact has been minimal. The state Department of Health issued an advisory to fishermen on the Elizabeth River and along the Norfolk beaches to check their catch for signs of oil, and not to eat contaminated fish.
Richard G. Ashworth, a lawyer representing the Columbus America, earlier questioned Jones as to his course and speed. Using data from the course recorders, Ashworth asked whether the Neptune Jade's course wasn't 20 degrees farther south than Jones recalled. Jones said that was not possible.
The West German owners of the 635-foot Columbus America have agreed to pay for the cleanup but have not admitted responsibility for the collision. All the spilled oil came from that ship's 140,000-gallon fuel tank, which ruptured in the collision.
The 800-foot Neptune Jade, registered in Singapore, received only minor damage, the Coast Guard said.
Jones has been a pilot with the Virginia Pilots Association for 17 years. Counselman has piloted for the association since 1950 and had been its president from 1969 until May.
The Coast Guard-NTSB investigation into the accident is expected to take at least six months.