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Mississippi River Oil Spill Investigators Hear from Tanker Lookout

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The lookout of a tanker involved in last month’s Mississippi River oil spill backed up his captain’s version of events at a hearing yesterday. The testimony of the lookout also indicated that the crew of a tugboat towing an oil laden barge was at fault for the collision that caused the oil spill.

At the end of yesterday’s proceeding, the Coast Guard suspended further testimony. The hearing had started at an earlier point in the investigation than is customary because the Coast Guard wanted to question the foreign crew of the tanker Tintomara, and allow them to return to their home countries.

Lookout Gilberto Guevarra testified yesterday that he was standing near the head of the tanker as it began its trip down the Mississippi at midnight July 23. Guevarra said he became alarmed when he saw a green light, indicating a vessel- now known to be the Mel Oliver – was turning in front of the Tintomara. According to Guevarra, the Tintomara began sounding its warning whistle before he even had time to notify the bridge of the problem, meaning that the tanker’s captain, Jan Stefan Bjarve, had already spotted the tugboat.

On Wednesday, Bjarve told the hearing that 1:30 a.m. on June 23, the Mel Oliver suddenly veered into the path of the Tintomara. Bjarve said the Mel Oliver did not signal the turn, nor did vessel traffic controllers issue any warnings. The day Bjarve testified, the Coast Guard also played radio transmission recordings from that night that back up Bjarve’s claims that he tried desperately to warn the Mel Oliver without success.

The hearing could resume as early as next week, but no date has been set yet. When the hearing does restart, it is expected that testimony will be taken from members of the Mel Oliver’s crew. Among those likely to be called are Terry Carver, master pilot of the Mel Oliver, and John Bavaret, the tug’s apprentice mate.

The Mississippi River oil spill occurred on July 23 when the Tintomara and the barge -carrying 419,000 gallons of oil – being towed by the Mel Oliver collided. The barge split in half, spilling much of its cargo into the river. It is estimated that about 280,000 gallons of oil actually spilled into the Mississippi.

At the time of the collision, Bavaret was piloting the Mel Oliver, despite lacking the proper license to do so. Carver, who should have been onboard, was nowhere to be found.

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