BOOKSBIOREVIEWSARTICLESBUYCONTACTHOME

excerpt from TRUE BEARING

"A tanker splits, 26,000 tons of oil are spilled.....


THE SPILL

Chapter 12

No one gives certificates for the victories that count. When genuine triumphs come, no citations are awarded; and so, too, no license was handed to me the day Frank Curran accepted me as a trained and competent journeyman among the tribe of those who have reported the ways of ships and the sea. If there is such a document, perhaps it is a scrap of paper I still own, a bit of frenzied writing dashed off by a reporter or the Associated Press whom I have never met, but whose name is now as familiar to me as my own.

The paper clattered into the communications room of The New York Globe and onto the AP news ticker at 1:43 P.M. on a Tuesday afternoon. The time is recorded. It was handed to me that January by Frank Curran. This is how it came to be mine.

All through that morning, snow had been falling in thick, driving columns that hurried away up Forty-eighth Street in the wind. By noon, traffic was barely moving, sliding and honking through the freezing mush that filled the streets, through the storm of white flakes that dusted over windshields. Neither Frank nor I went out for lunch that day. We brought sandwiches back to our desks. The newsroom was peaceful and quiet at midday. No commotion disturbed the usual mealtime lull. It appeared, all morning long, that the storm would be the biggest story of the day.

It appeared that way until two o'clock, when I looked up and saw Braverman strutting down the aisle fast, holding a slip of paper. He stopped at Frank's desk and said in a grim, quick voice, "You'd better look into this." Frank Curran took the slip of paper and read it through. He did not speak while he read it. Then suddenly he asked: "Hey, Henry. You busy?"

"No," I said. I turned halfway around. Frank glanced over at Braverman.

"Let Henry do it," he said. "I've got two other pieces working. I'm up to my armpits."

"You don't want to do it yourself?"

"No," Curran replied. "I've got all I can handle." Then he took the slip of paper and handed it to me.

"Give me a reading soon," Braverman said.

He turned and walked quickly back to the desk. I shoved my papers out of the way and my heart started to pump hard. I looked at the piece of paper and read: New York, January 17 (AP)-A 26,000-ton oil tanker collided with a Norwegian freighter today in stormy seas and blinding snow 33 miles south of Easthampton, the wealthy resort community. An aerial reconnaissance flight over the scene reported that the tanker, Spartan Pilot, was spilling heavy black fuel oil into the sea at the rate of "thousands of gallons an hour," a Coast Guard spokesman said. The tanker was reportedly cut in two by the force of the collision, but it was not immediately clear whether both halves had sunk. The freighter, Alva Borg, lost its bow, but is still apparently seaworthy, authorities added. There is no word on injuries.

Officials monitoring the spill reported that winds and currents appeared to be carrying the rapidly growing oil slick northwest toward southern Long Island beaches, jammed with vacationers during summer. Oil pollution control experts fear devastation of marine life, sea birds, and stretches of shore line. The Coast Guard rescue coordination center said a specially trained and equipped 20-man oil spill strike team had lifted off from its base in Elizabeth City, N.C., and was heading for the scene of the accident. The center said the cutter Defiance had put to sea and was heading for the scene as well. I looked at my watch. It was seven minutes to two. My limbs felt like paper. Adrenalin washed through my veins. At once, every other thought vanished from my mind but the thought of an oil tanker, broken in two, oozing its poisonous cargo into the Atlantic Ocean. Every trace of attention poured into that piece of paper in one torrent and nothing existed but the bulletin, not the great room, not the people around me, not anything but that piece of paper and a broken tanker spilling its oil. I did not know how much oil.

I did not know what kind of oil. I did not know about the ships, or how they had collided, or the fate of the sixty or seventy men who manned them, or current weather conditions south of Easthampton. I did not know a hundred things I needed to know, new only that two ships had collided and a tide of oil was loose in the sea. I tried to stay calm and see clearly what the first steps should be. My hand shot out and fired off from memory the number of the Third Coast Guard District News and Photo Office. Frank got up and disappeared. The telephone rang. It was picked up by Chief Warrant Officer Don Bohlen, who appeared more unhinged than I, under tremendous pressure, and desperate for information himself. He rattled off quickly in a southern drawl what little he knew. I cut in to question him often. I kept tugging at odd scraps of information. I was trying to picture what had happened, exactly how it looked, but there were too many holes and I could not see it all for sure.

Chief Bohlen spoke quickly. Roughly twenty feet aft of her forward deckhouse, the Spartan Pilot had been struck by the bow of the Alva Borg and had jackknifed in two on the pounding seas, Chief Bohlen said. Both sections of the tanker were still afloat, but the stern of the ship was listing thirty degrees and would founder at once, might already have gone down. One lifeboat had been cleared away.

As to the Alva Borg, she had lost the first fifty or sixty feet of her bow and was down slightly by the front. She appeared to be riding well, though. Weather conditions were improving rapidly, but at the time of the collision they had been abominable. When the two ships struck at about 12:30 P.M., Chief Bohlen said, Force 9 winds had raked the ocean with gusts up to forty-seven miles an hour; and sea heights had reached twenty-five feet.

It was now snowing lightly at the scene, but earlier, visibility had been close to nil. It was known that the Spartan Pilot had been carrying 6.5 million gallons of number six fuel oil. Her destination had not been learned. We spoke quickly. I thanked the chief, hung up the phone, and dialed off another number.

I looked at my watch. It was three minutes past two. My heart was still pumping hard and when she answered, the secretary of the Suffolk County Executive put me through without asking any questions. The Suffolk County Executive was distraught and furious. He said his own environmental office had estimated that the entire thirty-mile length of Fire Island was in jeopardy and that the peril to marine and shore life was beyond calculation. The Suffolk County Executive said he had appealed for assistance from the National Guard to fight the oil; he had ordered all county agencies to stand ready to act on orders of the Coast Guard's Captain of the Port for New York; he had called a meeting of local officials for six o'clock that evening and he said the spill was an ecological disaster of the greatest magnitude. I wrote in my notebook as quickly as I have ever written; I did not need to ask questions and I barely managed to stay ahead of the stream of sentences.

I made three more calls-to the governor's office, to the Department of Environmental Conservation, and to Borg Line, the owners of the Alva Borg.

Then Frank was at my elbow with a sheet of paper. He left it next to my phone. It had two columns of data on the vessels, but I barely noticed him anymore. I was aware of nothing but the spiral notebook under my face and the telephone cradled under my neck. I was caught up already in a storm of action whose center was far away, fixed on a point thirty-three miles south of Easthampton, where a tanker carrying six and a half million gallons of oil was spilling her cargo into the sea.

Half an hour later, we were pouncing across the chop of the East River in a Cessna 180 Float plane, when Paul Mackie, a charter pilot with twenty years' flying experience, looked to his side and yelled above the drone of his engine: "This ain't gonna be no picnic, boys. Hang on."

He reached up, shoved his throttle forward, the Cessna smacked across a dozen more wave tops, lifted several feet into the air, slapped back down, lifted again; and then the wings of the little plane bit at last into the windy sky and she began to climb up, out over the Queensboro Bridge.

The sky was black and purple all above Queens; the snow had nearly stopped; the weather forecast predicted clearing and I was glued to my window. Next to me, with a belt strapped around his middle, two Nikon F cameras across his chest, and a Leica M-3 in his lap, was Doug Farmer, a Globe photographer.

We climbed east by southeast, out across the borough of Queens; the little Cessna shook in the gusts of wind that blew in from the sea as I watched a dozen needles flickering on Mackie's control panel. Ahead, out over the engine cowling, nothing was visible save the folds of dark, angry clouds sitting still over the city. Far beneath, Queens slipped by, a field of black buildings broken by patches of white snow, but I didn't watch closely. I was thinking about a point in the Atlantic Ocean at seventy-two degrees, six minutes west; forty degrees, thirty-one minutes north. They were the coordinates of the collision. They had been flashed out to all the world by the radio operator of the Spartan Pilot and picked up by the Coast Guard moments after impact. The fix had been accompanied by the time, the call sign of the tanker, the letters SOS, and the bulletin: "Assistance needed immediate." I knew the coordinates and I knew where the point was. I could see the nautical charts in my mind. To the south of Long Island, stretching away for over two hundred miles, lie two lanes, each five miles wide, running almost due east and west between Ambrose Light at the mouth of New York Harbor and the Nantucket lightship.

Those lanes link the busiest harbor in the United States with the key junction for all traffic in the European trade: the Nantucket lightship. Few established shipping corridors are traveled more heavily. The Ambrose-Nantucket lane is a two-tier highway across the ocean; it is printed on every chart issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and printed, too, is the clear warning: "When crossing traffic lanes and separation zones, use extreme caution." The point thirty-three miles south of Easthampton was smack in the middle of the inbound lane.

That was made the collision so extraordinary. It was not exactly the open ocean. Two ship captains should have been proceeding with the utmost care in a zone so heavily traveled. Both should have been adhering to international regulations fixed by law for the reduction of speed and the sounding of signals in poor visibility. Ships of this size and type had radar devices with a fifty-mile range. They had ample capability for bridge-to-bridge communication. Every conceivable aid had been available to both captains to warn of danger.Yet somewhere to the east of us, in blinding snow, the two had collided.

I kept looking at the needles fluttering on Mackie's gauges. I tried to recall anything I had read or heard from Frank about the limitations of radar. I kept wondering what had gone wrong. I could not imagine it. It was nine minutes past three. I looked out the window. We were out over Long Island now, and the black buildings of the city had given way to neat rows of suburban homes. In the distance, I could make out Hempstead Bay and Jones Beach, a sliver of sand beyond. For a moment my thoughts shifted and the strangest sensation filled me, crammed in the rear seat of a little Cessna seaplane knocking through the sky. The story would make page one. There was no question. I wanted to see it in the paper. I wanted Spector to see it, too, and every editor on the desk.

I watched the towns pass by and finally, just over Fire Island Inlet, we slipped away from land. Soon the Cessna was out over the ocean and the gray, marbled sea rolled away forever, streaked with long white trails of foam, raked by the wind that shook the plane like a leaf.

It happened fifteen minutes later. We spotted the oil first. At twenty-six minutes past three, Mackie yelled to look and pointed several degrees to the left of our nose. We looked and there it was, below us, moving in the current, an immense stain of coal black on the blue-gray of the sea, a colossal finger of murk running east-southeast as we flew. Farmer unlimbered his camera and started squeezing off pictures. I watched the oil and felt blood clicking up through my throat. I watched it a long time as we sped on. Everywhere below us, the Atlantic was awash with black. I told Farmer I thought I could smell it. He said he thought he could, too. He squeezed off frame after frame. I kept looking. I had never seen number six fuel oil before. All I knew about it I had read in books. It was the heaviest grade of industrial fuel oil and hardened when cold to an asphalt consistency. It could not be found in cans or at gas stations and was meant to stay in hoses, pipes and tanks. When it got out of them, it was lethal-sometimes not directly.

The substance could act like glue, trapping seabirds who dove for food. If they dove beneath the surface, the oil became an impenetrable sheet through which the birds could not punch free. A bird would struggle, a fist slamming against a rubber curtain, and sometimes it died struggling. Even if it broke free, though, number six fuel oil could kill in other ways, too. It coated feathers, breaking down the animal's natural warming and waterproofing mechanisms, leaving it to drown or die of exposure. And oil was poisonous, of course, a toxic hydrocarbon. This was how it killed most directly: by poisoning. In licking itself clean, a bird consumed the stuff. It killed fish in the same way, too, but again it could kill in other ways, by hampering movements or by clogging gills. If the oil did not kill fish, it could taint them to the point where petroleum could be smelled and tasted if they were eaten, to the point where the fish could not be sold.

It could ruin the flora and fauna of the ocean, as well, and the destruction of marine vegetation brought in turn the destruction of any creature which fed on it.

On beaches, as much as anything else, fuel oil was a nuisance. Washing up at times knee-deep after a spill, it took weeks to bulldoze away or scoop into barrels; and it lingered after that, turning up, sticking to feet, ruining beach towels, spoiling clothes, making for unhappy vacations. I knew the houses on Fire Island rented for thousands of dollars in summer. I wondered how valuable they would be if oil fouled the Island's sands.

The oil, then, was moving northwest, toward the beaches, carried on by wind and currents. Six and a half million gallons of it had been stored in the cargo tanks of the Spartan Pilot. Chief Boheln had calculated before we spoke that six and a half million gallons of number six was small enough to fill 2,200 tank trucks of average size, or to heat a small city through the winter. He felt the numbers might be helpful in giving some sense of what was involved. The oil of the Spartan Pilot, what had spilled, would heat no cities. We could see it below us, everywhere below us, swirling in the current. The Cessna droned on southwest.

We saw them, shortly afterwards, several lengths of gray and white in the distance, sitting still on the dark water. Mackie spotted them first.

"There they are!" he yelled.

It was the ships. We could see them clearly, coming up fast, rolling in the sharp, jagged waves flecked with spray. I tried to make notes and Farmer's motor-driven camera was whirring away, shot after shot, but then we were nearly on top of them and I stopped, clutched the notebook and stayed close to the window. We took one pass overhead, continuing as we had come, east-southeast. I held onto the back of Mackie's seat, my eyes wide, aghast. Only the torn length of a tanker bow remained, wallowing in the seas, some 250 feet of inert steel, out of control, pummeled by wind and water. Just aft of her handsome, sharply raked bow, we could see the name in black letters: SPARTAN PILOT.

She had broached to in the great troughs between the waves and each sheet of water slammed her broadside, creaming up over the starboard rail and across her red deck as it smashed past on its way north. Great walls of spray flew up with each blow and the rear of the section was an open metallic wound of twisted strakes, bent railings and shattered bulkheads. The stern half was nowhere in sight; gone; sunk. As to what remained of the ship, more trouble would come unless the hulk withstood the hammering of the seas. She was low in the water. The bow was still full of oil. Then we were over the Alva Borg, peering down at the mess of black wreckage that had once been her nose. It was blunt, open to the water, and pushing a foamy hill of ocean in front of it. The impact must have crumpled her bow straight back to the collision bulkhead.

Apparently the bulkhead had withstood the crash, though. The Alva Borg was steaming slowly in a circle around the bow half of the Pilot. Beyond the Alva, another freighter had arrived on the scene. She was larger, maybe 12,000 tons, black-hulled, lifting and falling slowly in the waves. We picked the name off the stern: John D. Monahan. Mackie banked the plane in a sharp left-hand turn, climbing as he went; and then we veered back 180 degrees for another look. We streaked over the Monahan and the Alva, back to the wreck of the Spartan Pilot. We made two more passes.

It was a dirty sight. Once painted gray and white, the ruined hull was smeared with oil and its peeling deckhouse, too, was smudged with dirty streaks right up to the wheelhouse windows. Forward of the superstructure, everything was intact-masts, catwalk, pipes, bitts, valves, and winches-but all of it, too, was coated with black. I watched the heaving stump of the tanker and felt a lonely sorrow of haunting force. No one ever weeps for ships that are wrecked. They weep for lives lost, for coastlines spoiled and fortunes gone. But no one weeps for the good, workhorse ships whose tired plates earn no distinction through the years except the wear of service. Usually they are destroyed by the incompetence of men; but when they go, all the good work is mangled with their broken ribs. When most ships die, they die despised.

So, too, would the Spartan Pilot. She was an old tanker, long past pride, built in France in 1952. It was all in the information Frank had given me. She had been resold three times and had been in her previous lifetimes the Helga, the Theseus, and the Polaris. She was owned now by something called Vatilitsos Shipping, Inc., and registered under the Liberian flag. She was 564 feet long and 26,286 deadweight tons. She was broken, too, and had no more lifetimes left.

The Alva would survive. A newer ship, capable of twenty-two knots, built in 1965 in Norway for Borg Line and owned by them still, she was 485 feet long, 9,700 gross tons, and of Norwegian registry. She would go to drydock, get a new bow, and sail again.

We made one last pass and on the starboard bridge wing I saw two figures in coveralls and brilliant orange vests. I guessed they were members of the Coast Guard strike team. I wondered what they could do. Farmer fired off shot after shot; then it was over. We turned west, back home, climbing steadily; and all the way back in, as dusk fell across the ocean and lights came on in the distance, none of us spoke. We made land at four-ten. I doubted the bow of the Spartan Pilot would survive the night. I wanted to call the Coast Guard as soon as I got on the ground. I guessed there were close to three million gallons of oil left in the bow half of the ship, three million gallons left to spill.

By evening, more was known. At five-thirty, the Coast Guard could report that the strike team had finished surveying the drifting corpse of the Spartan Pilot and taken careful soundings inside her cavernous tanks, checking the ullage in each one, measuring the loss of oil.

The report was grim. Number five tank, just forward of the impact area, was badly gashed and full of seawater. Only the port wing compartment had survived undamaged. Forward of number five, tanks one through four were still intact. No oil had been lost. Based on these soundings, the first authoritative estimate on oil discharge was developed by the Coast Guard and relayed by the news and photo office: roughly 4.5 million gallons of oil were gone. Aboard the severed trunk of the ship now, only two members of the original crew remained. The captain, a Greek, Georgios Hazzopoulos, was still on board the vessel. One other officer, the chief engineer, had chosen to stay with him out of family loyalty. The engineer was married to the captain's niece. These two, and four members of the strike team, would be the last crew of the Spartan Pilot. Captain Hazzopoulos had said he would stay to the end. His sense of duty had remained whole, even though half his ship was gone.

The rest of the tanker's complement had transferred from the doomed, pitching hulk that afternoon. Most were on board the Alva Borg; some were aboard the Monahan. One man had been killed jumping into a lifeboat in the heaving sea; three others had been injured. The Alva was steaming back to New York now, escorted by the Monahan.

The cutter Defiance remained on station in the long, rolling swells that swept past the ruined tanker. The current had continued steady at half a knot through the afternoon, bringing the oil with it, a five-mile slick of oil lapping, swirling, and wandering toward Fire Island.

The Pilot drifted, too, drifted slowly northwest with the great bulkhead between numbers four and five tanks her stern now. No attempt would be made to tow her in from the sea that night. The mayor of New York had announced that the city would block all efforts to bring the fragile wreck into port past the city's shoreline.

So the remaining 250 feet of tanker ambled along at the command of wind and tide, the six men aboard her no more than passengers. Far from the city, on Long Island, the effort had begun to muster volunteers, each town and village supervisor sending word through the night: help would be needed if the oil came.

I wrote seventeen hundred words that night, over two full columns of print; and I wrote them with the greatest, fiercest intensity I have ever put into any words. I wrote them in just under two hours, slamming the typewriter carriage back after each line, hammering off sentence after sentence, cranking sheet after sheet into the breech of my old, gray Underwood.

I fired off line after line, my fingers rippling across the keyboard, and for page after page, I lobbed this story up at the desk beyond. I was tense to the point of snapping, for the wreck of the Spartan Pilot was the biggest assignment I had ever handled. But it was not tension that kept me pounding away for two hours with a savagery that exploded through eleven and a half pages of copy. I knew very surely as I slashed my way through sentence after sentence that I was as close to becoming a shipping writer as I had ever been. I had fought to do it since coming to New York, fought through two summers and two autumns. Spector had made it clear: The new York Globe had ceased caring long ago about the freighters and tankers that called on New York Harbor. But the night the Spartan Pilot spilled her oil, to understand those ships and their business was the most important job in the newsroom. Thirty-six miles of Long Island shoreline depended on matters of ullaging, navigation, salvage towing, and marine engineering. It might be the greatest maritime disaster in decades. The story would fill the paper for days, maybe weeks. Every editor on the desk would see it; the entire city would see it; and afterward, no one could doubt that someone had to take over from Frank Curran.

The presses of The New York Globe held for twelve minutes that night to catch the end of the piece; and by the time I finished, I was limp, hungry, and swollen with vindication. It was a fast dispatch with no romance to it, just the smack of cold facts and sharp, clean reporting. This is how it began: Over four million gallons of heavy fuel oil spewed into the Atlantic Ocean 33 miles south of Easthampton yesterday afternoon when a 26,000-ton oil tanker collided with a Norwegian freighter in a blinding snowstorm at sea.

The tanker, Spartan Pilot, had been bound for Providence, R.I., from Venezuela, and was cut in half by the force of the collision, which occurred at 12:40 P.M. in the heavily trafficked east-west shipping lanes south of Long Island.

Coast Guard officials reported late yesterday evening that a northwest current running steady at half a knot was bringing the oil slick six miles long-toward the beaches of Fire Island, the popular summer resort.

"We are completely at the mercy of wind and tide," one officer said. "If there is a shift, we will have a very grave situation on our hands."

The story reported that the governor of New York had ordered a force of six hundred National Guardsmen mobilized to stand by for cleanup operations; it described the survey report radioed by the strike team aboard the Pilot; and the piece quoted Express Shipping Agency, Inc., the agents for the Pilot, on the history and vital characteristics of the tankers. I gave an account of the flight over the collision, the feverish activity on Long Island, and the mayor's refusal to allow the vessel into port. The last page of the story was finished just after eight-thirty. I turned it into the desk, and then I went and found Flo.

I walked back through the newsroom, turned and started down the corridor, picked up a cup of coffee on the way from the commissary wagon, then marched to the end of the hall and into the Culture section. She saw me as soon as I walked through the door and put down her pencil at once. As I walked over, she rose slowly to her feet. She was wearing a pair of brown corduroy pants and a plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up. She was beaming.

"Where have you been?" she said.

"About a hundred miles east of New York. Right over an oil spill."

"My God. I didn't know what had happened to you. Irving said you had gone to a tanker wreck. I was writing eulogies just in case." She was smiling from ear to ear.

"No eulogies. This guy could fly a seaplane upside down in a tornado."

Then she came around, took me by the arm, and we walked out the door and way down the corridor until we were down by the water cooler.

"Did it make page one?"

"It's leading the paper."

"Really?"

"Yes. Really."

"Oh, Henry, congratulations," she said. She was looking right at me, smiling. "Congratulations." Then suddenly she put her arm around me, pulled me close, and we kissed a long, long kiss as the water cooler hummed nearby. We stood still and hugged each other very close. Finally we leaned apart and she looked at me. "I wish we could celebrate."

"We will." I said. "How are you?"

"Busy, I've got two stories to get through before nine. I want to celebrate."

"We'll celebrate. You have to get back?"

She nodded. So we looked at each other one last time and then we turned and walked slowly back to her desk in the Culture Section.

When we got there, she looked at me. "See you at home," she said. "Take a cab, hunh? Or the subway. No seaplane."

"No seaplane," I told her.

Then she said very softly: "I love you."

"Me, too." I took my coffee and left.

I closed my desk at quarter to ten, just after the first edition came up from the presses. The story had a two-column headline. I folded the paper under my arm and walked out toward the elevator. I had not cleared the aisle leading out of the newsroom, though, when I saw a figure standing all alone at the bulletin board, puffing a pipe, his arms folded across his chest. I stopped for a moment, just to say hello.

"Lots of excitement," I said to him.

"Guess so," the Deputy City Editor murmured back, not looking away from the bulletin board. His pipe seeped smoke. He looked ahead of him, indifferent to conversation. I felt awkward. We had little to say to one another. There was so much to do tomorrow. I left.