There is a small plastic vial – a former pill bottle – on the shelf in WC’s living room. Inside is a blob of smelly, tar-like crude oil, most of the volatiles long since evaporated or dissolved. The blob came from a large deposit on Crafton Island, on the westerly side of Prince William Sound. It’s a tiny, tiny part of the oil spill from the Exxon Valdez Disaster in 1999. WC has no doubt, none at all, that if you were to visit Crafton Island today, and turn over a few rocks, you’d find similar tarry gunk. Crude oil in cold water lasts a long, long time.
Pristine waters across thousands of square miles were gravely damaged by the catastrophic oil spill. The spill killed 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles and as many as 22 killer whales,1 as 10.8 million gallons of crude oil poured out of the Exxon Valdez after it grounded on Bligh Reef.
The man in charge of the Exxon Valdez when it strayed miles of course? Captain Joseph Hazelwood. Who wasn’t on the deck as the ship left Valdez Arm. He was in his cabin. He was acquitted of drunken driving; the Coast Guard botched the chain of custody of the blood sample, which might have been taken too late in any event. But his blood alcohol tested at 0.061, and he admitted to drinking at least two drinks before boarding his ship that fateful night. Captain Hazelwood was an alcoholic. His driver’s license had been suspended or revoked three times by the state of New York for alcohol violations between 1984 and 1989. He was in a rehabilitation program in 1985 at South Oaks Hospital in Amityville, New York. Following that rehabilitation treatment he received 90 days of leave to attend Alcoholics Anonymous. But at the time of the Exxon Valdez incident in March 1989, his New York state driving privileges had been suspended yet again as a result of a driving under the influence arrest on September 13, 1988.
Captain Hazelwood maintained his alcoholism had nothing to to with the disaster. The National Transportation Safety Board disagreed, It found that the ship’s third mate had failed to properly maneuver the vessel because of fatigue and excessive workload, and that Captain Hazelwood had failed to provide a proper navigation watch because he was impaired by alcohol. The Exxon Shipping Company and its Exxon Corporation subsidiary were found to have failed to provide a fit master and a rested and sufficient crew.
And, in any event, he was the Captain of the ship and was legally responsible for the ship, its cargo and its safety. A sober ship captain would not have left the ship in the hands of a marginally qualified Third Mate when the ship was outside of the usual shipping channels (the Exxon Valdez had maneuvered to avoid icebergs).
Captain Hazelwood died sometime before July 22, 2022, although it wasn’t widely reported until September. The cause of death is not reported, but he was known to have been ill with cancer and COVID for some time.
In 1999, Captain Hazelwood told The New York Times, ““As master of the vessel, I accept responsibility for the vessel and the actions of my subordinates. I’ve never tried to avoid that. I’m not some remorseless oaf.” But he also said, “Demonizing me works for people. It’s an easy way to personalize this catastrophe.”
Sharon Bushell and Stan Jones, in 2009, the 30th anniversary of the disaster, wrote The Spill: Personal Stories From the Exxon Valdez Disaster, and in an interview with Captain Hazelwood quoted him as offering a “heartfelt apology” to the people of Alaska while at the same time suggesting that his notoriety was not deserved.
All of which is why WC cannot wish the decedent well. Do Not Rest in Peace, Joseph J. Hazelwood, 1946-2022. Some crimes are unforgivable. Some apologies are too lame.
1 These numbers are the numbers of corpses recovered. The true losses were much higher, but are impossible to determine.