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The Spill:
Personal Stories
from the Exxon Valdez Disaster

By Sharon Bushell & Stan Jones

Copyright 2009 By The Prince William Sound
Regional Citizens' Advisory Council

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Interview with Joe Hazelwood
Captain of the Exxon Valdez

"I would like to offer an apology, a very heartfelt apology, to the people of Alaska for the damage caused by the grounding of a ship that I was in command of."

The day of March 23rd, I had some shipís business to attend to, as did the chief engineer. On my list was to order flowers for my daughter, which I always did every Easter. If I hadnít had any pressing business I probably wouldnít have gone ashore. I had no burning desire to go to Valdez. At any rate, the chief engineer and I went to town around eleven in the morning. After lunch we had a couple of drinks.

After the grounding, the safety of the crew was paramount, as was the safety of the ship, and retaining safely the cargo that was still left on board. As for the cargo that had escaped, we werenít going to get that back. We were trying to maintain the structural integrity of the ship as it was on the rocks.

Everyone behaved professionally, but of course they were a little uptight. For all of us it was an alien situation.

A couple hours later, when the first two Coast Guard officers got to the Exxon Valdez, they asked me what the problem was. I told them, ďYouíre looking at it,Ē by which I meant that the ship was on the rocks and a huge amount of oil was leaking. It was a comment that was widely misinterpreted.

When Captain Deppe arrived at nine or ten in the evening on Friday, we had a change of command. I told him as much as I knew. I had the pilot boat take some soundings around the vessel so we knew what the depth of the water was adjacent to the ship and the condition of the tanks. At the same time, the Baton Rouge was coming alongside to lighter the vessel. Captain Deppe then gave me the keys to a room in the Sheffield Hotel. The place was mobbed with people coming and going and no one took any notice of me.

I met with the NTSB in Valdez and told them I wasnít going to speak to them. Then I left. That was a choice I made based on some advice my father had given me years earlier. He had been an airplane pilot who had had some involvement with the NTSB, and his thought was that no good had come from dealing with them.

I returned to New York. It was good to get back to familiar surroundings, but my house was under siege. There were three news trucks parked in the front yard and reporters all over the lawn, in the back yard and on the porches. They were stealing the garbage and stealing the mail. One of my neighbors worked for the postal service. He called the marshals in to put a stop to that, as they were stealing his garbage, too. That commotion lasted for about two weeks, during which time my family and I temporarily moved to another house.

That first year was really rocky and I found myself living my lifeóparts of itóin third person. Iíd glance at a newspaper, see my face, and think, ďBoy, that guyís really in trouble.Ē I assume it was some kind of defense mechanism that kicked in in my psyche. I didnít do it consciously, but it seemed to work.

To a certain degree, that first year, I was stalked, but after that I was no longer recognized. Occasionally there was some name recognition, but no physical recognition that I was aware of.

Most important to me was that my family and friends didnít think any less of me; that was the thing that mattered most. I was thrust into the spotlight for a while but I was still a private person, and the people closest to me never wavered in their support.

The criminal justice process involved a couple of trips back to Alaska for arraignments. There I pled not guilty and returned home, then I returned to Alaska for subsequent charges and pled not guilty to those as well.

There was a whole procedure of motions and discovery, and then the actual trial commenced in late January of 1990. That went on for seven or eight weeks, then there was a verdict. I was acquitted of three out of the four charges, with one misdemeanor count remaining. There was a sentencing: $50,000 and 1,000 hours of community service, then there was an appeals process. The remaining charge was thrown out on appeal twice. Finally the Alaska Supreme Court sustained it, and that was the end of the appeals. Then the sentence, which had been stayed until the appeals were exhausted, was imposed.

Surprisingly, during the trial very few people said unkind things about me, except for the prosecutor. For the most part, the witnesses did not. Things were pretty low key. There were no histrionics or Perry Mason moments. It was pretty straightforward. Intellectually, it was interesting, except for the fact that I was the defendant.

The prosecution had subpoenaed the shipís crew and they were truthful in their testimony. I do want to say, I got to know one of the courtroom reporters pretty well, the lead crime reporter for the AP, Linda Deutsch. When the prosecution rested she made the offhand comment, ďAre they going to bother to prove anything?Ē Her next question was, ďAre you going to bother to put in a defense, because the prosecution hasnít proven anything?Ē

The true story is out there for anybody who wants to look at the facts, but thatís not the sexy story and thatís not the easy story. People want to hear the news when they want it, and they donít want to delve into any complicated thought processes. Theyíll settle for quick sound bites. Thatís what happened, and weíll leave it at that.

I donít know if Iím hardwired this way, but Iíve never been a whiner. Iíve never thought it accomplished much. There are a lot of people in this world with a lot of problems, and Iíve got a few myself. But I donít think thereís any sense in belaboring your troubles. IĎve always felt that if youíve got animosity or distaste for something, you have to personalize it somehow. Itís tough to hate a corporation, and Exxon is a very big corporation. I was able to give a personal name for people who, for lack of a better term, needed to vent their spleens.

I donít have any particular animosity toward Exxon. They had great ships, and they paid me well for a job that I loved doing. They were a good corporation to work for. Of course, I had differences with them over the years, which every employee has with every employer, but nothing that couldnít be overcome between adults.

As for community service, I started off by picking up trash along the Anchorage roads. That only lasted one day because the director of community services in Anchorage, as he put it, really didnít want me out on the street somewhere, tying up traffic with people ogling me in an orange jumpsuit.

By the time I returned that first day, my lawyer and the head of community service had called around and found that Beanís Cafe  was always looking for able bodies to help out. We met with the director of Beanís and he said sure, come on and work for us. It was a little bit overkill when I first started there. There were three satellite trucks in the parking lot, which I thought was a bit much. But by the second or third time I went up there, I just came and went. I was old news.

I worked at Beanís for three stints of five weeks each. Iíd punch in in the morning at about five-thirty and punch out at around six oíclock at night, seven days a week. I did janitorial and maintenance work, cleaning stoves and grease pits, waxing floors, all kinds of things. One year we built an office. I have a little knowledge of computers, and Beanís had a bunch of donated computers, so I set them up one year.

Nowadays, I do some investigations and consulting on technical issues for a maritime law firm in New York. Iíve always enjoyed to sail, and I get on the water as much as I can. I donít own any sailboats now but I sail for other people on occasion. Most of the racing we do in the summer season is in Long Island Sound, and some offshore racing down in Bermuda. In the spring, Iíll bring yachts up to the Northeast from Florida and the Caribbean and then take them down in the fall.

After the oil spill, looking at the upside, the biggest thing for me was that I got to know my daughter a little better in some of her more formative years: junior high, high school, and college, which I probably wouldnít have normally because I would have been gone half the time. She is a very strong kid and all her friends were supportive of her. The biggest event for her was when the reporters found out what school she was in.

They all gathered at her school to try to get her to make a statement for them. God only knows why. My neighbor was a New York state trooper. His daughter was a good friend of my daughterís. When this incident happened, the friend called her father. It just happened to be his day off, so he slapped on his uniform and chased the reporters off the school grounds. The administration didnít really know what to do, so he just took it upon himself to do a little proactive crowd control.

Another positive thing was that I met a lot of nice people that I would never have met otherwise. Of course, I would rather have met them a little more on my own terms. Prior to the spill, I always enjoyed meeting Alaskans. They seemed very genuine, and I admire their independent spirit. After the Valdez spill, I never had any problems with the people of Alaska. I always felt that they gave me a fair shake.

Occasionally people have called me a scapegoat, but Iíve never felt comfortable with that term when applied to me in regard to the oil spill. I was the captain of a ship that ran aground and caused a horrendous amount of damage. Iíve got to be responsible for that. Thereís no way around it. Some of the things that came later, the efforts at cleaning up, were really beyond my purview, but it still goes back to that: if my ship hadnít run aground and spilled part of its cargo, the event never would have happened.

I canít escape that responsibility, nor do I want to. I would like to offer an apology, a very heartfelt apology, to the people of Alaska for the damage caused by the grounding of a ship that I was in command of.

Copyright 2009 by the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council