SAN FRANCISCO -- The pilot of a 748-foot-long oil tanker that struck the Bay Bridge in heavy fog three months ago committed "misconduct" by making a risky last-minute change in course, state investigators concluded Thursday.
The pilot, Capt. Guy Kleess of San Francisco, failed to effectively communicate with other members of the ship's crew and "lost awareness of what was happening around him," an investigative committee of the state Board of Pilot Commissioners concluded.
The board voted unanimously to immediately suspend Kleess' pilot license and move ahead with the formal process of extending the suspension or permanently revoking the license.
"The Board of Pilot Commissioners takes seriously its regulatory role," said Capt. Allen Garfinkle, the board's executive director.
According to the report issued shortly before Thursday's board meeting, Kleess on Jan. 7 changed his route while the ship, the Overseas Reymar, was moving toward the Bay Bridge because the fog was thickening and he discovered that the radar beacon between two towers of the bridge was not working.
The tanker sideswiped a tower of the Bay Bridge's western span near Yerba Buena Island. The accident caused an estimated $1.4 million in damage to the bridge, Caltrans reported in new estimates released Thursday. The ship sustained $220,000 in damage.
Fortunately, the vessel was empty, having off-loaded its oil at the Shell refinery in Martinez the night before.
Still, it was the second time a large ship has hit the Bay Bridge in the past five years, highlighting a key environmental risk.
"I'm very pleased with the board's decision," said Deb Self, executive director of the environmental group Baykeeper. "This was serious. The risk of catastrophic oil spills in the bay is pretty high."
Kleess, a former Exxon oil tanker captain who has sailed professionally for 36 years, was heading north toward the ocean on the morning of the incident.
He had planned to sail between the Bay Bridge's "C" and "D" towers. But as the Bay Area News Group first reported in January, he suddenly changed course and veered east, investigators concluded -- like a truck driver switching lanes at the last minute while heading into a toll plaza.
"Capt. Kleess executed his turn toward the bridge late, not accounting for the advance of the vessel in the turn and not realizing the degree of set the vessel was experiencing," investigators said.
At 11:18 a.m., the huge vessel collided with the "E" tower. Although its side was gashed, the ship, built in 2004, had a double hull -- as required by federal law signed by President George H.W. Bush after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill -- and no pollution spilled into the bay from its bunker fuel tanks.
During the previous ship collision with the Bay Bridge, in November 2007, the Cosco Busan, a 901-foot cargo ship, hit the "D" tower. That accident, also in heavy fog, spilled 53,000 gallons of bunker fuel into the bay, killing more than 6,000 birds and oiling 69 miles of shoreline.
After the January accident, a radar beacon on the Bay Bridge that shows sailors the midpoint between towers "C" and "D" was discovered not to be working. Complicating matters, the ship went under the Bay Bridge as currents quickly accelerated because of a 3-knot ebb tide.
With the vessel in trouble, Kleess only used one of the radar systems on the ship to see where the bridge was, and its images were fuzzy, investigators found. He did not use a more precise radar on board, or a laptop with electronic charts pilots he carried. Nor did he talk with the captain of the ship, Jeffrey Memarion, during critical moments, the report found.
Shipping pilots are experts who help captains bring large ships in and out of the bay and negotiate local conditions.
Investigators revealed that Memarion was talking on a satellite phone to a ship chartering company while his vessel was in grave danger. At one point, only six minutes before the collision, he casually asked Kleess if he wanted to eat lunch soon. As the ship careened at 12 knots -- about 1,200 feet per minute -- toward the tower of the bridge in thick fog, Coast Guard officials on Yerba Buena Island radioed to ask Kleess if everything was OK.
Yes, he said. Minutes later, the rear of the ship shuddered against the bridge tower and Kleess could be heard on the ship's voice recorder yelling, "Oh shit!".
On Thursday, Kleess' attorney, Rex Clack of San Francisco, said his client is a "dedicated and highly skilled mariner" who has sailed thousands of large ships without a significant accident. Telling the board that no one can survive the scrutiny of 20-20 hindsight, Clack said that the conditions were dangerous the day of the accident and that Kleess will seek to clear his name and restore his license.
Concerned about the two collisions with the Bay Bridge, the Coast Guard and the San Francisco Bay Harbor Safety Committee in February passed new rules that prohibit oil tankers, cargo ships and other large vessels from sailing northbound under the Bay Bridge when there is less than half a mile of visibility due to fog.