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Tampa crewman tells of skipper leaving him in control of 'Valdez'

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - The Tampa crewman who was in control of the Exxon Valdez when it ran aground testified Tuesday that skipper Joseph Hazelwood had given him command after ordering a course diversion at full-speed ahead. "He asked if I felt comfortable with what we were going to do and I said, 'Yes,' " third mate Gregory Cousins testified at Hazelwood's trial. "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.

Cousins, who was described Monday as being frantic in the moments before the ship ran aground, told of fairly smooth sailing until the hour before disaster struck.

In a slow, painstaking delivery, the third mate explained to jurors how tankers operate, how radar works and the difference between magnetic and true north. He told of many conversations with Hazelwood about the course the Exxon Valdez would follow into Prince William Sound.

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 and a helmsman, Robert Kagan, were at the wheel when the 987-foot tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef, spilling 11-million gallons of North Slope crude in the nation's worst oil spill.

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. The maximum penalty for conviction on all counts is seven years, three months in prison and $61,000 in fines.

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. It was too dark to actually see the ice from the deck, Cousins said, but he 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.

Hazelwood contends that he left clear orders with Cousins for the ship's direction and that if his orders had been obeyed the disaster never would have occurred.