1. Archive

Hazelwood trial focuses on crew's weaknesses

Published Oct. 16, 2005

The Exxon Valdez could well have been an accident waiting to happen, according to testimony at the ship captain's trial. When the ship ran aground March 23, 1989, spilling 10.92-million gallons of oil into Prince William Sount, it carried:

A helmsman, Robert Kagan, who had well-known problems with steering.

A second mate, Lloyd LeCain, who allegedly had a history of mental problems. Hazelwood's defense attorneys have said LeCain boasted of being a submarine commander in the Falklands, a Green Beret in Vietnam and a figure in the Iran-Contra affair.

Defense lawyer Dick Madson said that when captain Joseph Hazelwood left his ship after the accident, LeCain approached him and said he had two cyanide pills in case he needed to commit suicide, saying he was "Ninja trained."

Hazelwood, who has a history of drunken driving convictions and is accused of being intoxicated the night of the spill.

As the prosecution ended its second week of evidence and prepared to wrap up its case, a picture emerged of a cohesive navigational team strengthened by highly educated and experienced officers but weakened by the troubled few.

Questions have been raised about Hazelwood's drinking, his knowledge of the crew and his judgment in leaving the ship's bridge in the hands of others during a tricky maneuver.

The 43-year-old Hazelwood, the only person criminally prosecuted in the nation's worst oil spill, is charged with second-degree criminal mischief, a felony, and three misdemeanors.

As crew members formed a virtual parade to the witness stand, their struggle to maintain loyalty to the captain while testifying against him was evident.

Veteran third mate Gregory Cousins, who was in charge of the ship when it ran aground, blamed Kagan for failing to follow orders and steer hard to the right. "I think Mr. Kagan didn't really understand the command," Cousins said.

Kagan himself conceded under oath that he had become "timid" about steering after he was once accused of oversteering a ship.

James Kunkel, the chief mate, suggested the skipper knew _ or should have known _ that Kagan was the weak link in the ship's chain of operations.

"I mentioned I'd sailed with him before and I thought he needed extra supervision and extra practice in steering," Kunkel said, recalling a conversation he had with Hazelwood.

Kunkel said Kagan could not do even the simplest tasks without being watched.

Once, he said he assigned Kagan to paint a bulkhead, but knew he would have to keep an eye on him to make sure he used the right paint and brush.

Yet Kunkel credited Hazelwood with keeping everyone calm aboard ship and said he made prudent decisions in the wake of the grounding.

The second mate, Lloyd LeCain, said he assessed Kagan's capabilities as "slightly below normal."

"I talked to Capt. Hazelwood about it," he testified. "He knew he had a problem. He told me to keep an eye on him when he was steering."

Defense attorneys tried to refute LeCain's testimony with the allegations about his mental state, but the judge refused to allow jurors to hear them.

For Hazelwood, one fact mentioned by every crew member was important.

They said the captain seemed sober and in command after the accident and denied smelling alcohol on his breath. Blood and urine tests taken after the accident showed alcohol in his system.