Watch CBSN Live

Oil Spill Pilot Thought Impact Was Minor

A harbor pilot under investigation in San Francisco Bay's biggest oil spill in two decades initially believed the damage to his ship was minor, radioing that the vessel had just "touched" the Bay Bridge, his lawyer said Monday.

In fact, Wednesday's collision ripped a gash in the fuel tank of the Hong Kong-based Cosco Busan, unleashing 58,000 gallons of thick, toxic fuel oil that was still being cleaned up.

Captain John Cota "has told me you could hardly feel anything on the ship and he must have assumed from that that there wasn't much damage," attorney John Meadows said. "The ship didn't roll. There wasn't a loud sound."

Cota quickly radioed authorities over an open radio network to report the ship had "touched" the bridge, according to an official with knowledge of the investigation.

"Traffic, we just touched the delta span," he said, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing criminal probe. Cota was referring to one of four supports beneath the bridge's western section.

The spill, initially reported at just 140 gallons, ended up being hundreds of times worse. The collision caused no structural damage to the bridge, but the fuel has fouled miles of coast, closed nearly two dozen beaches and piers and killed dozens of seabirds.

Meanwhile, federal investigators began a criminal investigation into the oil spill by questioning crew members of the Cosco Busan.

Crew members will be allowed to leave after federal investigators complete interviews that started Sunday, said Capt. William Uberti, the U.S. Coast Guard commander for the bay region.

Uberti said he notified the U.S. attorney's office Saturday about problems involving management and communication between the officers on the ship's bridge at the time of the crash. He declined to elaborate, except to say: "It was just the way that everybody interacted" on the bridge.

The bridge personnel included the helmsman, watch officer, and ship's master - part of the Cosco Busan's Asia-based crew - as well as the pilot, Capt. John Cota, among the most experienced of the seamen who guide ships through the bay's treacherous waters.

The ship is owned by Regal Stone Ltd., a Hong Kong-based company.

As well as the criminal investigation into the actions of the ship's crew, there is a focus on how the Coast Guard responded once the oil was in the water, reports CBS News correspondent John Blackstone.

Many in the region suspect the Coast Guard was too slow to react when the boat hit the bridge. The spill was first reported as just 140 gallons. It was 13 hours before the Coast Guard told San Francisco's mayor it was much bigger, adds Blackstone.

The head of the Coast Guard defended his agency's response to the spill while pledging a full and transparent investigation.

"On the surface it would appear that we did everything by the book in this case as far as responding," Commandant Adm. Thad Allen told The Associated Press while en route from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco to survey the damage.

"However, having done this work for over 36 years, nothing is as it seems at the start," he said in an interview. "We need to recover all the information, make sure all the facts are established."

"There wasn't a decision to wait, there wasn't opportunity to exercise to pass the information along given everything that was going on," Allen said at a Sunday night news conference in San Francisco. "We were mobilizing resources and response equipment, putting booms in place, getting skimming equipment that was out there."

Allen said it may have taken time to figure out the extent of the spill partly because gear used to measure how much fuel is in the oil tank were damaged in the crash. He also noted the poor visibility at the time - a quarter-mile to an eighth-mile in the fog.

"You don't turn 900-foot vessels on a dime," he said, "and given the visibility at the time I think it would be difficult to assess whether or not the bridge itself was visible."

The ship struck the bridge early Wednesday, causing no structural damage to the span but leaking some 58,000 gallons of fuel oil into the bay. The thick, toxic fuel has fouled miles of coastline, forced the closure of nearly two dozen beaches and piers and killed dozens of seabirds.

Some of the oiled birds have been brought into rescue centers coated in the toxic sludge, reports Blackstone. A careful bath in dish detergent can clean up much of the oil, but many of the birds still won't survive.

"An oiled bird is just completely black. It is very traumatized. It squeals, it pecks at itself, it is very lethargic, they don't eat. Their temperature goes down," reports Bob Melrose of CBS radio station KCBS-AM, observing the rescue efforts. If the birds have pecked at themselves, it means they've ingested the oil.

"This is a pristine area, it's a pristine estuary, and this incident should have never, ever occurred," said Coast Guard Adm. Craig Bone.

With so much oil in the water, San Francisco Bay has been declared off limits for fishing. Now at Fisherman's Wharf the crab pots are piled with no where to go. Crab season has been cancelled.

"This has turned into a disaster for me," crab fisherman Hans Hartung told CBS News.

National Transportation Safety Board spokeswoman Debbie Hersman said the NTSB is currently accessing the ship's voyage data record which will hopefully show the ship's speed, course, and other information.

"Some of the information that would be on the voyage data recorder would be 12 hours of potentially recent information. Things like audio on the bridge, conversations that took place on the bridge," Hersman said. "As far as data information, it would have things like speed, course, heading, engine commands and response, rudder commands and response, radar, potentially, radar images, water depth and heading. So, we are very hopeful that will contain some good information, which were are in the process of obtaining and downloading right now."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., met with Coast Guard officials Sunday and called for improvements to the system for responding to spills. She said communication needs to be better between the Coast Guard and the communities where toxic sludge began washing up shortly after the crash.

"There were a lot of unusual things such as weather, but that should not excuse this," Feinstein said.

After touching down in San Francisco, Allen boarded a Coast Guard helicopter for a one-hour aerial tour of affected areas of the bay with Bone, the agency's top officer in California.

The helicopter swooped over the Golden Gate Bridge and hovered near the Bay Bridge, where the wooden bulkhead surrounding the bridge support was splintered and broken where the ship had struck it. Shiny slicks of oil still floated on some parts of the bay, while crews in hazmat suits trudged along beaches near Sausalito and Emeryville as couples walked nearby and people flew kites.

More than 10,000 gallons of oil had been recovered by Sunday, but much of the oil never will be, the Coast Guard said. Some will evaporate or dissipate and be absorbed into the ecosystem.

The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal agency that investigates major transportation accidents, arrived Sunday to start its own investigation. That inquiry, which will include an examination of the Coast Guard's response, could take up to a year, said Debbie Hersman, an NTSB spokeswoman.