Meds Taken by Ship’s Pilot Led to Action — (Associated Press)

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Associated Press

 By ERICA WERNER 

Apr 9, 2008

WASHINGTON (AP) ­ The pilot of the container ship that spilled 53,000 gallons of fuel oil into the San Francisco Bay was convicted of DUI and took prescription drugs that could have affected his cognitive abilities, federal investigators said Wednesday.

Capt. John Cota was apparently diagnosed with alcoholism and developed pancreatitis as a result of his drinking, according to testimony at a National Transportation Safety Board hearing.

A medical report said that Cota should not have been granted a pilot license by the Coast Guard after a physical last year, which revealed a long list of medical conditions including sleep apnea, which can cause problems sleeping at night and drowsiness during the day.

Cota, who is facing federal civil charges and declined to testify at the hearing, also was taking anti-anxiety pills, Wellbutrin for depression and medications for pain, migraines and to combat his sleep apnea.

“I wouldn’t want anyone taking those medicines and having to make decisions in a safety-sensitive position,” Dr. Robert Bourgeois told an NTSB panel during the second day of a two-day hearing on the Nov. 7 accident. Cota’s attorney didn’t immediately return a call for comment.

With Cota piloting, the 900-foot Cosco Busan sideswiped a support of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge that foggy morning, gashing the ship’s side and fuel tank.

Documents released by the NTSB at the first day of the hearing Tuesday explained for the first time that these medications prompted the Coast Guard to ask Cota to voluntarily turn in his mariner’s license in the weeks after the accident.

NTSB investigator Dr. Barry Strauch revealed Wednesday that Cota was convicted of driving under the influence in February 1999 and entered an alcohol rehabilitation program. He was granted a waiver to retain his pilot’s license.

On Tuesday investigators focused on procedures at the port and onboard ship that morning where Cota, a pilot who boarded locally, was working with a Chinese-speaking crew and a master who had never been in the San Francisco-Oakland port.

Transcripts of the voyage data recorder show the pilot and crew struggling in English and Chinese to read navigational devices amid anxiety about thick fog. “Yeah, it’s foggy, I shouldn’t have gone,” Cota says shortly after the crash. He tells the ship’s master he misunderstood the chart and the master’s explanations of it, apparently mixing up different symbols.

Yet Cota denied to an NTSB interviewer that an apology he offered the master was a statement of wrongdoing and said he had asked repeatedly about the symbols on the charts. “‘Show me on this electronic chart where the center of Delta Echo Span is,’ and I asked him that three separate times, last of which just before we hit the bridge,” Cota told the NTSB about a week after the incident.

Cota, who has pleaded not guilty to criminal negligence and violating environmental laws, was subpoenaed to appear at the hearing but declined. The ship’s master and several crew members also refused to appear under subpoena amid ongoing federal investigations.

The Associated Press reported in January that Cota was taking prescription medication to combat drowsiness brought on by his sleep apnea. In his interview with the NTSB, Cota acknowledged sleep apnea so severe he had to use a machine at night called a “continuous positive airway pressure” device to open his throat and help him breathe. Documents released by the NTSB on Tuesday also include the transcript of a January interview in which the NTSB questions a Coast Guard official about Cota’s medical records.

When one of the questioners asks, “what medications are you talking about,” another person answers Provigil; Valium as a sleep aid; Aciflux for heartburn; Lipitor for high cholesterol; Alphagan, used to treat glaucoma; the migraine drug Imitrex; and potassium citrate for kidney stones. There were also several prescription drugs whose spellings the transcriber was forced to guess at.

Previous physicals showed “prior history of alcohol abuse and depression,” and said Cota attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings three times a week, an unidentified NTSB questioner says at the interview.

Associated Press writer Scott Lindlaw in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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