It began routinely enough, just another ship on a calm ocean beneath blue skies.The vessel was the 811-foot American Trader, carrying a crew of 25 and millions of gallons of crude oil from a supertanker off Long Beach to an underwater pipeline off Huntington Beach. From the pipeline the oil would flow to Golden West Refining in Santa Fe Springs, just as it always had before.
The tanker crawled slowly and uneventfully from Long Beach Wednesday. By afternoon, probably a little after 3 p.m., the tanker captain, Robert La Ware, radioed ahead to Huntington Beach for a local mooring pilot to join him as the ship neared its destination southwest of "Surf City's" storm-ravaged pier.
"It's a tricky maneuver," said Sanford Schmidt, president of American Trading Transportation Co., which owns and operates the American Trader. "The captain needs to back the vessel into an offshore mooring, which is a nest of buoys."
Although the maneuver takes practice, it is not considered especially difficult for experienced pilots and captains. La Ware was a skipper with 30 years of experience at sea. John Keon, the full-time, self-employed mooring pilot who boarded the American Trader, was experienced too. Both men had performed the technique many times before, and observers agreed that it should not have posed an unusual challenge that day. Winds were light, swells were four feet and from the west--nothing out of the ordinary, except the tide was unusually low.
Keon came aboard about 4 p.m., officials said, and the ship promptly dropped one forward anchor, then the next, preparing to swing on the anchor cables and back up into the 700-foot wide, U-shaped mooring area.
Within a few minutes of dropping the anchors, something went frightfully wrong. Oil began gushing from the tanker. Eventually, nearly 400,000 gallons spilled out, Southern California's worst oil spill since the huge discharge off Santa Barbara in 1969.
Exactly what happened was unclear, but the anchor was the suspected culprit.
"It looks like it (the ship) rode up over its anchor and punctured on it," said Coast Guard Adm. J. William Kime, as investigators revealed that the anchor had punctured the hull at least twice.
"The anchor is now bent like a banana," Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Mark Kennedy said after divers emerged from a look at the ship's underside.
The accident ruptured the No. 1 Starboard Wing Tank, one of three forward oil-bearing compartments of the 80,000-ton vessel, which was built in Philadelphia in 1969 and has worked the Alaskan oil service off and on for the last five years. That compartment, according to company records, holds about 1.3 million gallons of oil, a fraction of the vessel's 23-million-gallon capacity.
Oil gushed out furiously. Thousands of gallons spilled into the water within minutes and began drifting from the ship, defying crew members on a work boat escorting the tanker who scrambled frantically to contain the oil with a vinyl boom.
"In calm seas, a boom like that can usually contain a spill," said John DeVries, manager of shipping and receiving for Golden West Refining. "Obviously, it didn't this time."
By 5:19 p.m., local Harbor Patrol officials were on hand to review the damage, and the Coast Guard dispatched its crews as well: A helicopter flew over the area to videotape the scene at 5:42 p.m., and a 41-foot Coast Guard craft arrived at 6:03 p.m.
Coast Guard investigators also boarded the vessel, and by 7:24 p.m. the American Trader's captain and pilot, as well as its first and second mates, had all been administered drug and alcohol tests. The alcohol tests were negative; results of the drug tests are taking longer to analyze.
As the Coast Guard and other agencies rushed to take up their places for the cleanup, residents and community leaders ashore braced for the worst. The sea air at the shore was laced with malodorous whiffs of petroleum. The slick, by then already two miles long and several hundred yards across, hovered at the horizon, edging slowly toward popular Huntington Beach and the environmentally sensitive wetlands of Bolsa Chica and the river estuaries.
Shortly after 9 p.m., Coast Guard officials warned that oil would wash ashore at about midnight. The Huntington Beach City Council convened at 9:15 p.m. to declare a state of emergency. In Washington, where the state's entire congressional delegation was dining at the National Press Club, officials received word of the spreading oil, and some rushed back to their home districts early the next morning.
But when dawn broke Thursday, the oil had not reached the beaches, having been kept offshore by a favorable breeze from the land, which enabled cleanup crews to corral some of the oil with retention devices near the ship.
Still, many residents remained concerned. At sunrise about 150 area residents had wandered to the shore, anxiously peering across the waves and dreading what the tide might drag in.