Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content
Bookmark and Share this page


Testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation;San Francisco November 2007 Oil Spill Causes and Response, Washington, DC
Deborah A. P. Hersman
U.S. House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation;San Francisco November 2007 Oil Spill Causes and Response, Washington, DC

Good morning, Chairman Cummings, and Members of Congress.  Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to present testimony on behalf of the National Transportation Safety Board regarding the container ship accident in San Francisco Bay.  The Safety Board as you know is an independent agency charged by Congress with investigating every civil aviation accident in the United States and significant accidents in railroad, highway, marine, pipeline and hazardous materials and issuing safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents.

The Safety Board seldom rules out any potential causes of an accident during the initial stages of an investigation until we have had the opportunity to thoroughly investigate all potential causes.  Although we gathered a tremendous amount of information, there is still considerable work remaining for us, including additional witness interviews, analysis of the voyage data recorder, and verification of documentation we have received from the Coast Guard and other parties.

After the allision, we monitored events in San Francisco Bay.  On the morning of November 10th, it became clear that the incident was a catastrophe, and we launched a 6-person investigative team, including me as the Board’s spokesperson.  Our team was in San Francisco that day, and we began our formal investigation the following morning.

Since then, the Board has sent 3 additional investigators to augment the team.  Our investigative groups address specific areas, such as deck operations, engineering, human performance, and emergency response.  Other teams, such as a voyage data recorder (VDR) team, will be formed as needed.

Our investigation is focusing on the safety aspects of the accident and the initial response. The issues we have identified so far and are investigating include:

  • probable cause of the ship’s allision with the bridge;
  • damages sustained by the ship and bridge;
  • notification of the accident; and
  • action taken immediately after the accident to limit and contain the spill.

This accident poses some challenges for our investigators. VDRs are a relatively new addition for ships. In fact the Cosco Busan was not required to have one. The technology is new, however, there are a number of proprietary systems.  Although we have been able to listen to the VDR audio recordings and see periodic radar screenshots, we have not been able to analyze the vessel’s performance, such as engine speed, rudder movements, heading and speed, because we only obtained the necessary playback software from the German manufacturer on Friday.

Since the crew is entirely Chinese, all recorded conversations among crewmembers is in Chinese.  We will have a Chinese interpreter when our VDR audio group meets.  The communication between the pilot and ship’s personnel was in English.  We are reluctant to characterize what was said until we know the substance of all communications on the bridge.

Fortunately, accidents like this are rare. The Safety Board has not investigated the pollution aspects of a major marine accident since 1990. There are some new issues for us, and we will address them with the same objectivity and professionalism as we do all our work.  We are fortunate in that we have experts from other modes of transportation who can assist us, and we have a dedicated staff that works very hard to get things right.

The Board is presently in the initial phases of this investigation and there is still much more work to be done. The investigation and final report could take as long as a year to complete. As new and significant developments occur, we will be sure to keep the Subcommittee and the public informed. Safety Board investigators are still on scene today in San Francisco, and could likely return to collect additional information.

Many agencies and groups have responded to the accident and the Safety Board would like to express its gratitude to all the organizations who continue to assist the Board in this investigation.

That concludes my testimony Mr. Chairman, and I would be happy to respond to any questions you may have.