The American pilot of an Argentine freighter expected until the last moment that the Coast Guard cutter Cuyahoga would avoid him, and said any of a number of maneuvers by the cutter could have prevented the two from colliding.
John Hamill, 29, Baltimore-based pilot of the freighter Santa Cruz II, testified calmly before a Coast Guard board of inquiry here yesterday that despite a left turn that placed it in the path of the oncoming freighter, the cutter could have continued at full speed and safely passed the freighter's bow.
Instead, Hamill said, the Cuyahoga's commanding officer suddenly reversed engines, causing Hamill to throw his vessel to the left in an effort to turn away from the cutter at the last moment.
Hamill also testified that had he made an earlier course change to avoid the cutter - which was rammed by the freighter and sank, killing 11 crewmen - he would have violated the nautical "rules of the road" and therefore would have relinquished his position at the vessel with the right of way.
"I knew what my duty was," Hamill said. "In the last seconds, I had the impression he was gaining more speed . . . getting across. He probably would have made it. If the Cuyahoga had stayed full, I would have missed her."
"I can't make decisions for bothships," he said. "I have to feel the other one is competent."
Yesterday's appearance by Hamill, a seven-year veteran with 700 trips in the area where the collision occurred, bolstered earlier testimony describing questionable actions taken by the Cuyahoga crew as it crossed crowded shipping lanes after dark on Oct. 20 while trying to enter the Potomac Riaer for the night.
Hamill's statements also provided the first details of the dramatic collision as seen from the bridge of the Santa Cruz as it steamed south from Baltimore at 14 knots.
Eighteen Cuyahoga crewmen survived the collision, including its captain, Chief Warrant Officer Donal K. Robinson, 48, of Yorktown, Va. Robinson, who has been told he is a suspect in the official investigation, was not present at yesterday's hearing.
Hamill, whose family watched from the front row, stood before a sketch board and calmly diagramed how the two ships closed in on one another. It was a "routine" trip for the young pilot, with light ship traffic, calm seas, "excellent" visibility.
Hamill said he first spotted the Cuyahoga eight miles off the port (left) side of the Santa Cruz. The passing situation in which both vessels would stay on course and pass to the left of one another.
Then, Hamill testified, he noticed that the other ship had changed its course and was showing red and green navigational lights, which meant the Cuyahoga had started its turn into the Potomac River. "It appeared to me [that the vessel] was having difficulty maneuvering . . . it changed its course to the left.
Then Hamill said the Cuyahoga turned again and showed a broad green light, indicating that the Coast Guard cutter had completed its left turn and was about to intercept with the oncoming freighter.
The pilot of the Santa Cruz went to the radar and spotted the Cuyahoga 30 degrees off his left side a mile and a half from the freighter. Hamill testified that the Cuyahoga's position was "unusual" in that "most of the ships keep closer to shore" when they cross just above Smith Point, Va., near the Potomac's mouth.
Hamill said he did not reduce his speed at this point because "the other fellor should have taken action."
Hamill testified, "It was apparent he was going to cross my bow . . . I sounded one whistle. There was no response." Under the rules of the road, Hamill said he was required to hold his course and speed as the privileged vessel.
He sounded another whistle. "I listened . . . I was hoping to hear him. I head nothing." At this point the two ships were one-half mile apart and closing in on a collision course.
Cuyahoga survivors testified earlier this week they heard one whistle blast from the cutter before impact, but none said they actually saw someone on the bridge pull the whistle cord.
"In my opinion the [the Cuyahoga] still had time to act and avoid the collision," Hamill said. He said the lack of communication from the Coast Guard cutter indicated "he either didn't hear it or misunderstood." Hamill testified that there was no time to use the radio.
Hamill testified that in a normal situation the Coast Guard cutter should have mad a right turn and passed on the Santa Cruz' left side. Instead, the cutter continued on its course.
"I could have done something earlier," Hamill conceded the vessel. I had no indication of what its intension was . . . I expected him to do anything in his power to stay clear of me."
Hamill said he could hear the drone of the diesel at this point. "I figure it was his engines."
The pilot said he sounded five short blasts as a danger signal 20 seconds before impact. Then he brought his engines to a full stop, "went hard to port and struck the vessel on the starboard side. The lights immediately went out . . . I could see she was heaving to port. The stern went under our bow." The Santa Cruz dragged the Coast Guard cutter for several hundred feet.
The Santa Cruz, loaded with 19,000 tons of coal, made a 343 degree turn to the right and circled back for survivors. "I was yelling from the port bridge wing if there were any injuries," Hamill testified.
The American pilot, who said he was the only one who spoke English on the Argentinean freighter, said after the collision, "There was much talking in Spanish. I don't know who was saying what."