Exxon Valdez skipper hopes to pilot a ship again

June 19, 1994|By Newsday

NEW YORK -- Joseph Hazelwood has been "on the beach," as they say in merchant marine jargon, since the Exxon Valdez crunched up on Bligh Reef in Alaska five years ago. But the captain, blamed again last week for America's worst maritime environmental disaster, still harbors a dream of commanding a large ship again.

"If someone offered, I'd jump at it," the Huntington Bay, N.Y., resident told Newsday in his first interview since his virtual exoneration in acriminal trial four years ago.

No matter how the legal uproar that has surrounded Mr. Hazelwood turns out, to many it would seem highly unlikely that a shipping company would place a captain found to have been drunk back on the bridge.

His odds appear even slimmer after a civil jury in Alaska a week ago branded him a reckless and negligent skipper and made the company that fired him, Exxon Corp., liable for billions in compensatory and punitive damages.

Lawyers for 14,000 fishermen and Alaska natives persuaded the jury that the Exxon Valdez went aground in Prince William Sound because Mr. Hazelwood was drunk and left the bridge at a critical point and that Exxon was at fault because it had done nothing about Mr. Hazelwood's drinking problem.

Michael Chalos of Centre Island, N.Y., Mr. Hazelwood's lawyer, said the verdict would be appealed.

After the 11 million-gallon spill coated 1,500 miles of coast, killed thousands of animals, interrupted the breeding of countless species and crippled the fishing industry, Mr. Hazelwood was cleared of all criminalcharges except for a misdemeanor charge of negligent discharge of oil. That conviction is being appealed.

The Coast Guard exonerated him on intoxication charges and suspended his master's license for less than a year. So the 47-year-old mariner said he was surprised and disappointed at the civil trial jury's findings.

"I thought we put on a pretty good case," Mr. Hazelwood said before heading back to Anchorage, Alaska, for the damages-setting phase of the trial.

Before departing on the trip that ended at Bligh Reef, the plaintiffs' lawyer said, Mr. Hazelwood drank heavily all day and left the bridge before the grounding because he was drunk. The captain said that he had had three vodkas and was not impaired.

Mr. Hazelwood has worked doing investigative and paralegal work for Chalos' Manhattan maritime law firm.

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