Robert B. Simpson: There, but for …

July 5, 2014 

It hardly seems possible that a quarter of a century has passed since the Exxon Valdez, a giant oil tanker with 53 million gallons of North Slope crude aboard, smashed into Bligh Reef and discharged 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound. It was an environmental disaster of enormous magnitude, the largest oil spill in U.S. waters until that time, and its horrendous impact on nature and on a native tribe dependent on the Sound's sea life for its livelihood continued down through the years.

The skipper of the Exxon Valdez, Captain Joseph Hazelwood, Jr., had gone below some time before the impact, leaving the ship under the control of his third mate. The captain said he had gone below to do paper work, confident that the mate could handle matters, as the two of them together had navigated this same course before. Others, though, said the captain had gone below to sleep off the alcohol he'd drunk earlier in the day. The fact that he'd lost his driver's license for driving under the influence, with more than one DUI on his record, didn't help his cause. Nor did the report of a Coast Guard inspector who said he smelled alcohol on Hazelwood's breath when he came aboard later. Nor did blood alcohol results (inconsistent) of a test taken many hours after the accident.

Hazelwood became the target of widespread attacks on his character, his professional qualifications and his veracity. Late night comics made him the butt of countless jokes. The public in general came to think of him as an unskilled drunk who carelessly spread crude oil along 1500 miles of Alaska's pristine coastline. After his trial and appeals, he could be seen serving his sentence by picking up trash along Anchorage roadways and, later, by working in a soup kitchen.

I thought about Joseph Hazelwood recently when reading about cases of children left by parents in automobiles to die horrible deaths in unbearable heat. Certainly the situations aren't comparable, but our reactions to them are. Just as we assure ourselves that we would never have taken the actions that led to the oil spill disaster in Prince William Sound, we are also inclined to self-righteously insist that we could never possibly inadvertently leave a child to die in the overheated oven of an automobile. But we could, of course. While there can be an exception such as may be with the recent death of a child in an Atlanta suburb, professionals who study these cases have found that innocent but deadly circumstances can lead the brilliant as well as the ordinary, the caring and loving as well as the inattentive, the rich as well as the poor, to make the fatal error that will lead to the loss of a beloved child and to a lifetime of nigh-unbearable guilt and grief. We cannot bear to believe that our lives are only marginally in our control, and that we are entirely capable of unintentionally causing the death of a loved one or a tragedy like the crash of the Exxon Valdez. So we heap calumny on the heads of the suffering target, insisting he or she must be deficient, feeling better about ourselves as a result.

In fact, Captain Joseph Hazelwood, a native of Georgia who grew up in New York state, was a highly skilled seaman from his teens on, with a near-genius IQ. At the age of 32, he became the youngest ship's captain in the Exxon fleet. At one point, he saved his ship and crew by heroic action in a devastating storm at sea. He was, and still is, held in high regard within the seagoing fraternity, and he still holds a valid ticket to captain a ship anywhere in the world. Witnesses swore he was sober at the time of the accident. As for the alcohol that an inspector said he smelled from Hazelwood, the alcohol he'd consumed earlier was vodka, which is not all that easy to smell. A jury didn't find that he was under the influence, only guilty of negligence, sentencing him to community service and a $50,000 fine. Exxon, which saved money by reducing crew size and increasing hours and lack of rest, had failed for more than a year to repair a radar that would have prevented sailing into the reef. For that matter, routine care by the third mate would have avoided it also. But the butt of the jokes was Hazelwood, not Exxon or the mate. Though fully qualified, Hazelwood has never been able, at last accounting, to find work as a ship's captain again. A couple of job offers, he said, were mysteriously withdrawn. His last publicly known employment was as a glorified clerk for a law firm in New York. He has born his continuing punishment quietly and with dignity.

I think it would be good if we forced ourselves to recognize that even we can do the unthinkable in a fatal moment of distraction or misjudgment, and we can suffer a lifetime of untold agony as a result. Maybe we ought to mete out an extra ration of love to children in our care. And an extra measure of tolerance and understanding for the Hazelwoods of this world and the guilt-ridden parents of children lost forever.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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