Thursday, February 19, 2009

Cosco Buson Oil Spill

Members of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)
Barry Strauch, one of NTSB's staff investigators

Members of the investigating team presented their findings to the Board

Whose mistakes caused the freight ship Cosco Busan to collide with the San-Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge spilling 53,000 gallons of oil into the Bay? Nearly 15 months after the spill, The National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) held a day-long hearing on this question on Wednesday.

NTSB member, Debbie Hersman, was the “member on scene” in San Francisco overseeing the investigation. The case has involved plenty of finger-pointing with the pilot of the freighter blaming the Coast Guard and the ship operating company, Fleet Management Ltd blaming the pilot. Criticizing the narrow focus on pilot error, Hersmsan said, “I believe the pilot bears the lion’s share of the blame for the collision with the Bay Bridge but there are other people who are involved. While the pilot lined up the Cosco Busan on a collision course with the Bay Bridge, the VTS (Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Service) watch standers watched it happen.”

She said the NTSB investigation itself was hampered by the delay caused by the Coast Guard’s failure to assess the magnitude of the spill. “It failed to correct that gross inaccuracy throughout that first day even in the face of overwhelming evidence of a much larger spill.”

Examining the performance of the pilot and the master of the ship, Rob Jones an NTSB staff investigator, from the office of Marine Safety concluded that poor communication led to the accident. Another investigator Barry Strauch focused on the cultural differences between pilot and master that added to the poor communication.

Hersman reset the clock on the investigator’s conclusions calling into question the Coast Guard’s role once again. She said, “I think this accident happened when they left the dock. They should never have left the dock under those conditions.” There was dense fog in the bay that morning and four other ships had delayed passage and moved to anchorage instead to sit out the bad weather.

Various issues such as the pilot’s medical condition at the time of the accident, the role of the VTS and the environmental response that followed the spill were discussed at the hearing. The NTSB is expected to release a final report with its findings and recommendations later on Wednesday.

This piece is also available on the KGO-TV website.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


My husband and I had planned a road trip to the Canyons in December last year. It's not the best time of year but we figured that since we were in Vegas we may as well go see the Canyons. We were tracking the notorious winter weather closely to make sure we weren't headed into any snow storms. Sure enough, a day before our planned departure from Vegas to Arizona, the road to the Canyons was closed because of a huge pile up of snow. Bummer. We would simply have to come back another time. Or so we thought.

Later that evening everything changed.

We have a cousin in Vegas who is a Captain in the US Air Force. He was planning to fly his parents and his wife over the Canyons the following day but his wife and mom (who fly frequently) changed their mind. So with two empty seats in the four seater, would we care to join?

When you can't drive, you fly??!! Our reply was obviously, "Hell Yeah!"

What follows is a photo essay of our flight.

Our cousin, Abizer Tyabji is a member of a flying club in Vegas from whom he rents his planes. We took off in the afternoon from the North Las Vegas Airfield. This is a view of the hangar. If you have a pilot's license its almost as easy as renting a car.

That day we flew a DA-40 - made by Diamond Aircraft Company. It is a four-seater and flies at about 140 mph ground speed. Abzi was flying this plane for the first time and really enjoyed it.

The best part was the wide glass paneling which afforded some wonderful panoramic views.

Abzi (left) preparing for the flight. Pulling out the gear such as headphones etc. I don't really know what else was in there.

Captain Abizer Tyabji

All aboard. Our only instructions were to keep quiet if ATC was talking to Abzi. We were first going to fly over the Hoover Dam and then onto the Canyons.

Thats the Hoover Dam down there. We just couldn't get over how Plan B and Plan A became Plan A +.

This is the source from where Vegas gets its water supply. The first picture is a close up of the sides of the reservoir. The sharp colour difference on the rim of the rock tells you how much the water has depleted.

Finally we are over the west rim of the Canyons. This is a landing strip for other commercial tours that fly over.

Captain Abizer Tyabji hanging out in his plane. He said it was easier to fly this baby than navigate in Vegas traffic.

It was a gorgeous day to fly - cold with a clear blue sky. The cold made it very comfortable inside the plane while the clear blue sky meant our plane was gliding like a happy bird.

After flying over the Canyons we flew over Abzi's Air Force Base on the way back. The little mounds that you can see in this photograph is where ammunition is stored - mostly dumb bombs for training and practice.

If you didn't guess already, yes those are F-16s sitting on the base.

We also had the pleasure of flying over the Vegas prison where O.J. Simpson is being held. Simpson has been sentenced to a maximum of 33 years with the possibility of parole after 9 years. He was involved in an armed confrontation with sports memorabilia dealers in a Las Vegas Hotel in 2007.

A view of the Strip. Abzi didn't get permission to fly right over it but this was also a good view.

We were in the air for about two hours flying over the Hoover Dam, Grand Canyon West, the US Air Force Base, O.J. Simpson's prison (!), Abzi's house, the Strip and finally touched down again at the North Las Vegas Airfield.

Like you do with a rental car, Abzi had to refuel the plane before returning it to a hangar. We used about 18 gallons for the flight.

This plane is so light, he could single-handedly lift it and turn it to get this wing near enough to the fuel station.

Pushing it though is a little bit tougher but three strong men can do the job.

The flight ends, Abzi clears it out and locks it down. Abzi and his wife fly all the time but for us it was a wonderful, thrilling ride.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


The tiny island of Sri Lanka has been ravaged by an on-again, off-again civil war since 1983. The militant, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has been battling the Sri Lankan government, for a separate Tamil homeland, Eelam, in the north and east of the island but without much success. In the process, nearly 70,000 civilians have died. The present government under President Mahinda Rajapakse has re-launched a military offensive to finish off the LTTE militarily. To make sense of the latest conflict, I interviewed Associate Editor of Indian newspaper, Deccan Herald, Sundararajan Murari.

Murari has toured Sri Lanka extensively and has covered the conflict for the last 25 years and has met several LTTE leaders, including Prabhakaran twice. He responded to questions over email from his hometown in Chennai, India.

Murari is both a friend and former colleague when I was working in Chennai. He is an excellent source for all things Dravidian and Lankan. You can read his interview on the website of the International Affairs Review.

Saturday, February 07, 2009


John Clodfeller, father of Kenneth Clodfeller who died in the attack against the USS Cole in 2000.

The White House press waiting for the 9/11 and Cole families.

For all the Republican talk about supporting the troops, it was with some surprise that I learnt that George Bush hadn’t once met the victims of the bombing of the USS Cole in which 17 American servicemen died.

On February 6th, President Obama met the Cole families along with families of the victims of 9/11.The meeting was meant to allay some of their fears about the closure of Guantanamo Bay and the 120 day suspension in legal proceedings against terror suspects detained there.

The press staked out outside the West wing of the White House for a few hours waiting for the families after the meeting. The 9/11 families left without speaking to the media but the parents of Kenneth Clodfeller, who passed away in the Cole attack stayed to speak to the press. Accompanying them was the retired Cmdr. of the USS Cole, Kirk Lippold.

Cmdr. Lippold had criticized President Obama’s decision to close Guantanamo Bay and while he emerged from the meeting “pleased with what the President said”, he still had strong reservations about the decision. He said, “It (Guantanamo Bay) served as a symbol of the war on terror that was affecting our national interests worldwide and overall the only issue that I still have with it was that he closed it on a one year date and still has to articulate procedures and policies for what hes going to do. So until those procedures and policies are actually laid out I think there is still a lot of concern as to what effect it’s going to have on our nation’s security.”

I asked him if that meant that he agreed in principle now with the closure decision to which he said, “I think that in principle the reasons that he gave may be good. Its well intentioned. But the problem I have remains that we still don’t have any procedures. There’s no process. He hasn’t articulated the specifics as to what hes going to do which means that they haven’t thought through the second and third order of impacts of that decision and we cannot afford to be arbitrarily setting deadlines without having to explain what the impact is going to be. We must have that.”

The families have been somewhat taken aback by the pace at which policy reversals have happened and Cmdr. Lippold strongly felt that President Obama should have met the families before making the decision to close Guantanamo and not after. That said, Cmdr. Lippold was also pleased that the White House had attempted to start a dialogue with military families. He said, “When it was all said and done he offered somethings that previously has never been done and for the first time, military families and families of 9/11 are going to have a seat at the table to be able to help this administration and have an open door as we articulate the policies that are going to keep our nation safe. I’m looking forward to working and seeing how they do.”


Most of the families came to the meeting with the impression that President Obama was going to release all the detainees of Guantanamo Bay – a fear that was allayed atleast for one USS Cole victim’s family – the Clodfellers from Mechanicsville, VA.

John Clodfeller’s son Kenneth’s body was the last to be found after the Cole bombing in Yemen. The former Air Force Officer became extremely emotional while talking to the media. It was clear that being remembered by the highest authority in the land meant a lot to him and in fact, the new young, President seemed to have had a remarkable influence on him.

Describing the meeting he said, “He (President Obama) really wants our help in trying to resolve this detainee issue. I did not vote for the man but the way he conducts himself, the way he talks to you, you can’t help but believe him. This President has a good possibility of being one of our best Presidents just because of the way he is as a human being.”

Abd-al-Rahim al-Nashiri has been accused of masterminding the USS Cole attack in which Kenneth Clodfeller died. But al-Nashiri has said that he was tortured to extract such a confession. The CIA has admitted that it “waterboarded” him but the interrogation tapes have since been destroyed.

Referring to the status of al-Nashiri Clodfeller said, “I can’t imagine an American that’s in one of our prisons for eight years without anything being done for him. It is just unconscionable that it’s taken eight years. They had him locked up and incommunicado. I asked CIA once, “Where is he?” and they refused to tell me," he said.

Clodfeller had tried to meet with President Bush through his representative in Congress but in vain. He said Bush’s refusal to meet with the Cole families led him to believe that “there’s something that they don’t want us to know about.”

His wife Gloria Clodfeller who was also at the meeting with Obama said that she agreed with President Obama’s policy of closing Guantanamo because it was “putting a black eye on America.” She said, “Hes trying to build up the way people feel about America again. To get our respect back which we have lost. I agree with that. Hes not closing it to let the prisoners be released. Hes just establishing a whole new mission so that way they can make the process move like its supposed to be so that by the end of the year everybody should know whats going on and they should be able to get the place cleared. And that the legal process should be exactly what it should be.”

“I just don’t believe in torturing or hurting people or anything like that. That’s my faith. Prisons should be able to rehabilitate people and no they’re not doing that. They’re just leaving them there to sit and stew and think and come up with more ideas about what they can do once they get off.”

Of the meeting with the President she said, “I feel like at least we’re getting an answer. At least somebody is talking to us. Somebody is letting us know after 8 years, no you’re not forgotten…”

I’m not entirely sure how other victims’ families felt after the meeting with President Obama. The Clodfellers are just one of the nearly 40 who attended.