When Tankers Collide, a Preview

From Chapter One
Sunday January 17, 1971

When another small speck suddenly appeared at the top of the screen, the radar man at the Harbor Control on Treasure Island knew the two oil tankers were on a collision course under the Golden Gate Bridge.

The radar man tried a warning first to one tanker and then to the other.

"Oregon Standard. This is radar. Oregon Standard."

There was no answer.

Looking down at the radar scope, the radar man watched the tiny speck representing the oil tanker Oregon Standard, loaded with oil from the Richmond refinery, edging past Angel Island and Alcatraz as it headed toward the Pacific Ocean.

From the top of the screen another speck, now only a pip, a small spot, was the oil tanker Arizona Standard, slowly moving in from the Pacific Ocean.

"They must be monitoring another channel," he thought as he tried to get a warning through. "There could be a collision under the bridge and I can't reach the ships."

"Arizona Standard. This is radar."

"Arizona Standard. Back."

"Roger. The present position of Oregon Standard. East of Golden Gate. One mile. Over."

The radar man looked at the screen and saw  that both of the ships were along the center of the narrow channel. Again he tried to get a message to the Oregon Standard.

There was no answer.

One minute later, Captain English of the Oregon Standard, hearing the sound of the Lime Point foghorn, said, "Better change the scale of the radar."

The radar was moved from one and one half miles to five miles.

"We've made contact." There was surprise, even concern, as captain and crew members watched the screen.

The Arizona Standard was off the port bow of the Oregon Standard. The captain believed he would make a port-to-port passing.

Fog signals were sounded.

At the port wing, another crew member saw, high above, the lights of the Golden Gate Bridge and heard the sharp, short, deep warning from the fog signal. Suddenly he picked up the phone to report a target coming on.

"Hard right to 265."

The helmsman repeated the captain's order. "The rudder is hard right, sir." The rudder, however, swung past the 270 point.

"Reduce speed."

The ship was now at four knots.

The captain, as he heard the mid channel horn on the center span of the bridge, said, "I think the fog signal is a little on the port side." He thought all he could do was get north of the center of the bridge.

As he took the whistle off the automatic and began blowing a prolonged blast by hand, he tried to make radio contact with the other ship.

"It won't do any good. Not enough time."

The captain listened for another whistle. He heard none.

A seaman, sensing impending danger, reached down, took the phone off the hook to warn the captain, but the handle would not turn. As he ran back to the bell, he fell to the deck. It was barely five seconds from the time he attempted to reach the captain and his fall on the deck.  

"Full astern."

The second mate repeated the captain's order.

"My God, he's crossing my bow."

The general alarm was sounded.

There was a crunch, a breaking of steel, as the crash cut off the catwalk. A seaman felt hot gas on his face. He skidded on the deck but got up and reported to the boatswain at the midships house, then to the third mate on the bridge.

"How about the lifeboats?"

"Get the lifeboats ready," the captain ordered.

The engines of the Oregon Standard were going full astern.

"Get this up fast," the mate yelled.

Seamen took the covers off and lowered lifeboat number three down to the poop deck. The mate thought in case of an explosion it would be best to jump into the lifeboats if they were part of the way down. Other seamen, now with their life jackets on, went over to help lower number four lifeboat.

"Don't get into the boats just now."

"Get the fire hoses ready."

The engines stopped.

"There probably won't be an explosion," one seaman said. "But it looks bad."

The captain ordered, "Tell the chief mate to get an anchor ready."

The two six hundred and twenty-three-foot oil tankers could not break themselves clear.

Oil immediately began pouring into San Francisco Bay.