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Tampa crewman recalls warning 'Valdez' skipper tanker was in trouble

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Seconds before the Exxon Valdez went aground, the Tampa crewman in control of the tanker testified Tuesday that he called skipper Joseph Hazelwood to tell him the tanker was "getting into serious trouble." The message was interrupted by a crash, third mate Gregory Cousins testified at Hazelwood's trial.

Cousins and a helmsman, Robert Kagan, were at the wheel when the 987-foot tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef, spilling more than 10-million gallons of North Slope crude in the nation's worst oil spill.

Cousins said he had begun to realize that Kagan was not properly following his orders to make hard turns in the ship's course.

"I could tell we hadn't turned," he said. And after giving another order to Kagan to turn harder, Cousins said he phoned the captain.

"I told him that we were getting into serious trouble," he recalled. "He asked, 'Where's the rudder? . . .' That was when we suffered the first shock and we were hard aground."

Hazelwood, 43, of Huntington, N.Y., is charged with one felony count of second-degree criminal mischief and misdemeanor charges of reckless endangerment, negligent discharge of oil and operating a vessel while intoxicated.

Cousins said he had never worked with Kagan before and had heard rumors the seaman had problems with steering on another voyage.

He said Hazelwood had left the bridge only about 10 minutes before the accident, leaving specific orders for rerouting the ship.

"He asked if I felt comfortable with what we were going to do and I said, 'Yes,' " Cousins testified. "He said, 'Do you feel comfortable enough that I can go below and get rid of some paperwork?' I said I felt very comfortable."

Cousins said Hazelwood told him would be gone "just a few minutes" and to call him in his cabin when the ship started to make a turn.

The prosecution is seeking to show that Hazelwood abdicated his responsibility for command of the ship when he went below and left Cousins in charge.

Cousins described the night of the accident as extremely dark and misty. He said that about an hour before the grounding he spotted ice on the ship's radar screen, and reported it to Hazelwood, who decided to divert the tanker from normal shipping lanes to avoid the ice.

At the point where the evasive maneuver was beginning, Cousins said the shift changed and a new helmsman, Kagan, arrived. At some point, he said, the tanker was placed on automatic pilot but he did not know when or for how long.