Twenty-five years ago this week, the Exxon Valdez left Valdez, Alaska, with 53 million gallons of crude oil, bound for California. A harbor pilot guided the ship through the Valdez Narrows before turning the bridge back over to Capt. Joseph Hazelwood.
In an effort to avoid floating ice, Hazelwood commanded the ship to leave the shipping lane. Before departing the bridge for his stateroom, he reportedly gave instructions to the third mate for returning to the shipping lane at a prearranged point.
That never happened, and within an hour the Exxon Valdez had struck Bligh Reef, releasing a quarter of its cargo into the pristine waters of Prince William Sound; 1,300 miles of coastline were affected, and an estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, as many as 22 killer whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs were killed outright. The damage to wildlife is still evident today.
Alaska charged Hazelwood with operating a vessel while under the influence of alcohol. He was acquitted of that charge but was convicted of negligent discharge of oil, fined $50,000 and sentenced to 1,000 hours of community service.
Hazelwood has a bachelor’s degree in marine transportation from SUNY Maritime College, and he agreed to walk CNN’s Kyra Phillips through the events of that fateful evening in the school’s simulator.
Although Hazelwood retained his Master Mariner credentials, he has worked primarily as a marine consultant during the intervening 25 years. It’s hard to think of anyone who ever had a worse day at the office.