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'Valdez' helmsman reportedly had problems

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - The skipper of the Exxon Valdez thought the seaman who was at the tanker's helm when it ran aground had problems steering and warned others to watch over him, the ship's second mate testified Wednesday. Both Capt. Joseph Hazelwood and third mate Gregory Cousins talked about problems with Robert Kagan's steering of the ship, second mate Lloyd LeCain Jr. testified at Hazelwood's trial.

"How would you rate Mr. Kagan's abilities?" the prosecutor asked LeCain.

"I'd say slightly below normal," LeCain said. "I talked to Capt. Hazelwood about it. He knew he had a problem. He told me to keep an eye on him when he was steering."

LeCain claimed that Cousins, whom Hazelwood had left in charge of the ship, had been on previous voyages with Kagan and knew he had to be watched. Cousins, however, testified he had never sailed with Kagan before the fateful trip.

The March 24 accident, the worst oil spill in U.S. history, caused more than 10-million gallons of Alaska North Slope crude oil to spill into the clear waters of Prince William Sound.

Outside the jury's presence, Hazelwood's lawyer, Dick Madson, said that Exxon had placed LeCain on leave because of mental and emotional problems, and that LeCain was known for making up wild stories and claims.

"He has a problem with fantasy," Madson told Superior Court Judge Karl Johnstone. He said LeCain once told Hazelwood he kept two cyanide pills with him in case he had to commit suicide and that he was "Ninja-trained." LeCain also had claimed involvement in the Iran-Contra affair, Madson said.

Johnstone said he would not permit Madson to tell this to the jury because it was "character evidence" prohibited by Alaska law.

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.

Kagan, who was blamed by Cousins for not steering the ship properly, had told jurors the captain commended him for his handling of the wheel in the wake of the accident.

But Cousins testified earlier Wednesday that the comment attributed to Hazelwood actually was typical of the captain's sarcasm.

"Did you hear the captain say anything to Kagan?" asked Madson.

"Yes," said Cousins. "I remember the comment, something to the effect of, 'Damn fine job, Bob.' " "And did you take that as serious or sarcasm?" asked the lawyer.

"Kind of dark humor," said the witness.

Cousins also contradicted two widely circulated reports that followed the accident. He said the ship was not on autopilot in the minutes before it ran aground. And he said Hazelwood never tried to reverse in an effort to pull the tanker off the reef.

Hazelwood's first order to him "was to get a fix" on the ship's location, Cousins said.

"Did that seem a prudent command?" asked Madson.

"Yes, we needed to know where we were on the reef," said Cousins.

Madson then asked whether Hazelwood seemed able to give "clear, concise commands," and Cousins said he did.