The Captain Went Down with the Ship

Premise One: Eight years ago a drunk Joe Hazelwood piloted the Exxon Valdez into a reef. Premise Two: Eight years ago Joe Hazelwood martyred himself out of pride. Resolution One: After much suffering and introspection, Joe Hazelwood has found peace. Resolution Two: He's resolved absolutely nothing.

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“Let's see if we can miss the reef this time,” Joseph Hazelwood says to me. Then he laughs. That's the first thing you notice about Joe Hazelwood, the laugh. It's not a laugh, actually; it's a joyless simulation of a laugh, a swift propulsion of air through the nose that mimics laughter's cadence but lacks its music, signifying neither joy nor scorn, but information. Laughter is a vital element of the Hazelwood vocabulary. Dark eyes bracketed by wrinkles, large bald head bobbing up and down, ever-present Marlboro tilting dangerously from his lips, he wields mirth as one might wield a friendly elbow: easing tension, forging a conspiratorial mood, letting you know in no uncertain terms that he, along with everybody else ù better than everybody else ù gets the joke. To be Joe Hazelwood is to be preternaturally alert to double entendres, puns, one-liners, coincidences, any flashing link between this moment and that dark night in March 1989 when he was transfigured from an anonymous but skilled professional into a lasting national symbol of rank incompetence and drunken idiocy. When the opportunity for a joke presents itself, he is coiled and ready, anticipating its arrival, deflecting it with topspin, and then laughing his ersatz laugh ù at the joke, to be sure, but also at the irony of his telling the joke. To be Joe Hazelwood is to be a connoisseur of irony, a seeker of veiled meanings. He may have lost his career, his ship, and his reputation, but he's still got perspective. He's still cool about it. Earlier today, Hazelwood was describing a different tanker run that he made through Prince William Sound. “We left Valdez fully loaded…” He pulls up short. “The ship, I mean—not me.” The Marlboro tip glows and bobs.

We're in the Seamen's Church Institute, a tidy brick building in lower Manhattan that serves as a training center for merchant mariners. We've come here at my request from the midtown law office where Hazelwood works to take a spin in the bridge simulator. This full-scale, state-of-the-art device has been set up to replicate the conditions at midnight, March 23, 1989, a few moments before the Exxon Valdez bellied-up on Bligh Reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound and began disgorging 11 million gallons of crude oil, obliterating life on 1,244 miles of coastline, and forever altering the way in which we view the vulnerability of our wild places. Instantly overlaid by myth, the spill has become crystallized in the public imagination as the archetypal catastrophe, Captain Joseph Jeffrey Hazelwood its archetypal cause.

The captain is nothing if not punctual, so we arrived at five o'clock, exactly on schedule, and waited a few minutes while the simulator's operator booted up its Valdez program. Hazelwood was eager to get started: In order to catch his 6:24 train home to Huntington, Long Island, he calculated that he must depart here at 5:45, no later. Now, as our facsimile tanker approaches the facsimile reef, he steps comfortably around the bridge, eyeing the engine-order telegraph, tweaking the radar, confidently adjusting the dials and knobs. Satisfied, he steps back and checks his watch: 5:35.

Beyond the frames of five bridge windows, the mountains of Prince William Sound part to reveal a passage ten miles wide. Ahead, the monolithic main deck of the supertanker recedes toward the horizon. Winds are calm, skies dark, visibility eight miles. We've left the shipping lanes, just as the Exxon Valdez departed them in order to avoid ice. Off the starboard bow, a tiny red light pulses once every four seconds ù Bligh Reef buoy. Radar shows that we're passing Busby Island, the spot where the tanker was to have begun its starboard turn back into the shipping lanes. An SCI captain named James Fitzpatrick, who has been informed of Hazelwood's time restriction, mans the helm.

“The moment of truth,” Hazelwood says flatly. “Give me right 20.”

“Right two-zero, Cap,” says Fitzpatrick.

The ship begins to swing. Hazelwood does not look to the radar screen for proof; he waits to see it, as he later says, “to feel the turn.” The red buoy light begins to slide across the windows, imperceptibly at first, then with silken rapidity. After two minutes, during which time we've advanced a bare seven-tenths of a mile, our 1,000-foot, 250,000-ton virtual supertanker—weighing 40,000 tons more than the Exxon Valdez—has turned on a dime. The buoy bobs innocuously off our port side. We've missed Bligh Reef by more than two miles.

Eyes on the horizon, Hazelwood speaks. “That's all you'd have to do. That's all anybody would have had to do.”

“OK,” says Fitzpatrick, picking up the note of finality. “Time to catch that train.”

Hazelwood doesn't reply. The ship presses onward. Bligh Reef buoy disappears from view. Minutes pass.

“Uh, Captain…” The dutiful Fitzpatrick taps his watch, which shows ten minutes until six.

Hazelwood doesn't move. His head fixes on the horizon, eyes reflecting the radar screen's endless clocklike whirl.

“Give me left ten, midshipman steady,” he says, ordering a course that will route the tanker back into the lanes, bound for Naked Island and the open ocean beyond.

“Left ten,” echoes Fitzpatrick. Again, Hazelwood waits to feel the turn.

Somewhere beneath us, a subway rumbles toward Penn Station. Hazelwood lets it go. He stays on the bridge because eight years ago he didn't stay. He stays on the bridge because he is in purgatory and in purgatory you can laugh, or cry, or protest your innocence, but the only thing that matters is reliving your sin over and over until either you or God is worn out. And that's the other thing you learn about Joe Hazelwood: He's served notice to God that it's not going to be him.

“Welcome to my nightmare,” he says.

It's my first meeting with Hazelwood, and he's standing in the cramped disarray of his 8-by-14-foot office, feet set wide apart, palms held out in parodic greeting. He's wearing a button-down oxford shirt, khakis, a Jerry Garcia-designed tie, and dress loafers, all of it enshrouded in the smoke and steam of his medicinal Marlboros and coffee. At 51, his body is that of a younger man: six feet, 180 pounds, broad shoulders tapering to a 34-inch waist, corded forearms below carefully rolled sleeves. Beneath the graying skein of beard, the face is small and childlike, with leathery skin crosshatched and furrowed by wrinkles, russet-colored eyes set in a wary squint, and obstinately protruding lower lip. He doesn't look at me as he talks, instead tipping his head toward the blue carpet. Eye contact comes in furtive volleys, to prevent the subtleties of his words from passing unnoticed or, worse, being misread for earnestness.

After a few minutes it becomes apparent that Hazelwood's not going to sit down. “I work standing up,” he explains to his coffee cup. An old shipboard habit, and not his only one. “When I first came here, I walked around shutting every door in sight. Drove everybody nuts. Kept cleaning off my desk, too. As you can see,” he indicates the avalanche of manila folders, sticky notes, and coffee-ringed napkins fanning out before him, “I've made the adjustment.”

There have been other adjustments. The drop in salary from $100,000 to “enough to live on.” The dearth of vacation. The daily 90-minute commute on the Long Island Railroad, or as he calls it, the Train of the Living Dead. “It's scary,” he says. “I catch myself moving to the spot on the platform where the doors are going to be when the train stops.” He places a long index finger to his temple and pulls the trigger. “I always swore I'd never be one of those guys.”

Every morning begins the same way. “Let's see what disasters we've got today,” he says, rattling open a copy of Lloyd's List, a maritime industry daily, and turning to the casualty report. Good news: capsized barge in San Francisco Bay, bulk carrier aground in Turkey, iron-ore carrier stranded in the Yellow Sea, cement-carrying barge near Guyana suffering “extensive damage” following a collision with an unknown submerged object. Hazelwood's job, among other things, is to negotiate settlements between cargo insurers, which his firm represents, and the parties liable for the losses, usually the shipping companies. Each morning brings a dozen or more new claims: delaminated plywood, sea-soaked paper, rancid plums, torn cellulose, rotting bananas. The files accumulate on his desk in great tilting stacks. Hazelwood makes a point of saying that he takes no joy in these incidents. He mentions this because he's aware, as he is aware of each Kafkaesque plotline in his post-spill life, that the more shipwrecks and groundings there are, the harder he has to work and (should you desire another level of irony) the larger his year-end bonus will be. When asked if he enjoys his present job, he hesitates and says yes. His desktop calendar, set on December 1995, is thickly brocaded with urgently penciled squares, triangles, circles, and other unidentifiable scratchings so deep that in places the paper is cut through.

“You'd be bored out of your skull watching me work,” he warned me in an early phone conversation. “I know I am.”

Hazelwood has been working at Chalos & Brown, the law firm that has defended him since the spill, for more than five years. Reserved and awkward in formal social situations, he excels in the manly woof and banter of proletarian office life, transmitting the universally comprehended vibe of the Good Guy, that can-do, sports-literate, shoot-the-breeze brand of heartiness that simultaneously draws people close and holds them at a distance. He isn't, he points out, an indentured servant. A reluctant Exxon picks up his legal bills, as it must under employment law in California, where Hazelwood signed on with the Valdez. (Democratically, Exxon also indirectly funds Hazelwood's criminal prosecution, since 85 percent of Alaska state revenues are derived from oil taxes.) Nor is he landlocked: His captain's license has been active since a nine-month Coast Guard suspension ended in 1991. After a brief string of temporary jobs—lobster fisherman, boat transporter—this job has the advantage of providing a staging area where Hazelwood can pursue the only vocation still open to him: defending himself in court. “Nobody in the maritime industry will touch him,” says Michael Chalos, one of his lawyers and a college buddy. “Who could afford to take the PR risk? I mean, bang a dock and it's on the front page—'Hazelwood does it again!'”

In the hallway outside his office, 20 feet from his nameplate, a collage of newspaper clippings is pressed inside a black frame: DRUNK AT SEA…FATEFUL VOYAGE…OIL-SPILL CAPT FIRED…$1M BAIL LANDS OIL CAPT IN BRIG… More clips, hundreds more compiled by the firm, reside in two black scrapbooks inside his office. OFFICER SMELLED LIQUOR ON CAPT OF TANKER… SHIP MAY HAVE BEEN ON AUTOPILOT…OFF TO JAIL…SKIPPER'S RISE AND FALL…

“Good reading, isn't it,” Hazelwood says over my shoulder.

It is, beginning with the trumpet-blare that the captain of the Exxon Valdez was, at the time of the accident, unqualified to drive his car in New York state because of drunken-driving violations. Then comes the New York Times page-one analysis that Hazelwood had probably set the ship on autopilot and gone below while third mate Gregory Cousins and helmsman Robert Kagan “desperately tried” to regain control. Then the stories that after the grounding, Hazelwood foolishly attempted to motor the ship off the reef, risking a possible capsizing and the spillage of millions more gallons of oil. And the dramatic courtroom depiction of the judge who compared the spill to the bombing of Hiroshima, set bail at $1 million, and sent Hazelwood to a night in prison before the bond was reduced.

Hazelwood flips through the binder as if it were a family album. His fingernail taps the page. “There's Kagan…there's Greg…there's a good shot of Mike Chalos…there's me in high school.”

He chuckles. And why not? The world may know his secrets, but he can laugh, because he has found out the world's secret, one that allowed him to endure hatred, ostracism, ridicule, loss, and pain. The secret is this: Keep your mouth shut. Hazelwood believes in silence, believes in it with religious fervor, because it has served him in a way that no religion could or did; it has given him a power no one else had, power he has never relinquished. Aside from his lawyers and his testimony in the civil case, he has spoken to no one about what happened that night. Not reporters, not his best friend, not his brothers, not his wife, not his fighter-pilot father — especially not his father. What happened that night-more precisely, what Joe Hazelwood did, what he didn't do, and how he feels about it-belongs to him and no one else. He keeps his secrets, and for better or worse, they keep him.

On our final visit, he will tell me, “If there's one thing I've learned from this experience, it would be this: If you're ever in any kind of a touchy situation, do not say a word to anyone. Words can only hurt you.”

Hazelwood's firm keeps newspaper clippings pressed in a black frame: Drunk at sea…oil spill captain fired…$1M bail. Lands oil captain in brig. “Good reading, isn't it,” Hazelwood says over my shoulder.

“quote”:”Hazelwood's firm keeps newspaper clippings pressed in a black frame: Drunk at sea…oil spill captain fired…$1M bail. Lands oil captain in brig. “Good reading, isn't it,” Hazelwood says over my shoulder.”}%

Hazelwood's firm keeps newspaper clippings pressed in a black frame: Drunk at sea…oil spill captain fired…$1M bail. Lands oil captain in brig. “Good reading, isn't it,” Hazelwood says over my shoulder.

The moment the Exxon Valdez touched Bligh Reef, Hazelwood's silence began. He gave no statements, permitted few interviews, declined to testify at the National Transportation Safety Board hearings and his 1990 criminal trial. “Hermetically sealed” was the term his lawyers used, and their obedient client disappeared onto the front page. His silence rescued Exxon, which needed a bogeyman; the press, which needed a reason; and the public, which needed a way to think about the unthinkable. He became a two-dimensional figure in a Puritan allegory, proof of the American theorem that history is character writ large. He evolved into a type, a handy referent for the loose cannon, the dangerous idiot. (Letterman's Top Ten Joe Hazelwood Excuse: “I was just trying to scrape some ice off the reef for my margarita.”) The artistic pinnacle of the Hazelwood oeuvre was his nonspeaking role as divine idol of the Smokers, the scraggly, jet-skiing globe-wreckers of Kevin Costner's soggy 1995 future-pic Waterworld. “Be patient, Saint Joe, we're close,” Dennis Hopper whispers reverentially to a gilt-framed portrait of the resolute-looking captain. “After centuries of shame, we're almost there.”

Hazelwood's firm keeps newspaper clippings pressed in a black frame: Drunk at sea…oil spill captain fired…$1M bail. Lands oil captain in brig. “Good reading, isn't it,” Hazelwood says over my shoulder.

That face—the shadowy beard, the child's stubborn lip, the brim of the driving cap darkening the already-sinister eyes—sets the tone of spill coverage. There's the usual spate of determinist profiles, in which Hazelwood's life is presented as dully predictable precursor: the 138 IQ, the cocky-ironic college yearbook motto “It Will Never Happen to Me,” the college drinking escapades, the too-quiet manner—even his ship's Exxon Fleet Safety Awards for 1987 and 1988 are knowingly invoked.

Suitably enough, it was Hazelwood's words that sealed his fate, most notably through the spectacularly damning quote he gave the two Coast Guard officers who boarded the ship the night of the spill. In four words, Hazelwood seemed to reveal that the reason for this spreading horror lay not in some mechanical or navigational problem, but rather in something that had broken loose inside him. The officer inquired what the problem was. Hazelwood replied, “You're looking at it.”

“I mean, here they were, called out to a grounded tanker in the middle of the night, oil spewing all over the place, and they walk up and ask me what the problem is?” Hazelwood sweeps his arm grandly. “I said, 'You're looking at it'—as in, 'Hey man, you're standing on it.' It wasn't an admission of guilt, but everybody interpreted it as such.”

The few times that Hazelwood was quoted in the aftermath of the spill, he said nothing to vindicate himself or show remorse. When the judge in his criminal trial asked for an apology, Hazelwood declined. When Connie Chung asked if he could declare his innocence before a national television audience, he said he could say nothing either way about the case. He displayed a clinical detachment from what everybody else was fiercely concerned with: the otters, the salmon, the ecosystem of Prince William Sound, the spill's larger role as harkening call, along with the widening ozone hole and the disappearing rainforests, to the environmental movement's early-decade shift to center stage in the American consciousness.

Hazelwood seemed oblivious to the fact that his silence forever condemned him in the minds of many, oblivious to the proven truth of the political maxim that it's not the accusation, it's how you handle the accusation that matters. Among friends and acquaintances, the silence engendered much speculation. Was it guilt? Pride? Shame? Denial? Was he protecting someone? But to hear Hazelwood tell it, the matter is simpler: There's nothing to say.

“What am I going to do, write a book about a guy missing a turn?” His eyebrows arch cartoonily. “Books have a hero. I'm just a regular guy caught in a situation. There's a perception out there, and all the spin doctors in the world can't fix that perception. I'm not a bubbly person. I don't have an inner child I'm beating up. Go on Oprah? I just don't have it in me. The people who know me know what I'm about.”

Occasionally, however, the shell of equanimity shows a few cracks. Though our time together has its agreed-upon boundaries (no questions about his actions leading up to the spill, no interviews with his wife or college-age daughter, no visits to his home), Hazelwood shows an increasing willingness to broach the accident and his feelings toward it. At those moments, which usually take place during his 20-minute walk from Penn Station to the office, his voice takes on the nasal, syncopated patois of middle-class Long Island. An unabashed bibliophile (another shipboard habit), he tosses off quotes from Oscar Wilde, Albert Einstein, Stonewall Jackson, Beryl Markham, and does a passable Bill Murray impression. The rhythm of the walk takes over, he's carried along in the hot swell of humanity, and for once his words flow unencumbered.

“You know, this thing happened the same spring as Tiananmen Square,” he says, stopping to carefully stub out a cigarette. “That was big news for a day—then it was back to our regularly scheduled slamming of Captain Hazelwood. A year later you got Saddam dumping 40 million barrels of oil—150 times what was spilled in Prince William Sound—and he's setting the country on fire, and the guy's still getting better press than me?” On his fingers, he ticks off other accidents and tragedies that received less attention, including many larger oil spills that were virtually ignored by the press. “The way the media handles disasters is out of proportion. Like a friend of mine said after TWA Flight 800 went down: 'Good thing there weren't any fucking otters on board.'”

Then we're outside his building, in the shadow of its steel and smoked glass. “I've learned to keep my emotions out of it,” he says, regaining his equilibrium. “This is a business, and emotions cloud your judgment. This is a technical problem, basically, and it's got to be dealt with in a technical way. Besides, it's like Eddie Murphy said in Trading Places: 'I'm a Karate Man—I bleed on the inside.'” He opens the door and smiles his good-guy smile, and it is utterly unconvincing.

The boxes are everywhere, stacked along walls, bowing bookshelves, and concealing the floor of Hazelwood's office, a tiny fortress of fact and belief. Together they form the bulwark of Hazelwood's legal argument that he was neither drunk nor negligent the night of the Exxon Valdez spill and that the real reason for the accident lies in an unfortunate combination of mundane events, happenstance, and human mistakes-the most significant of which were not made by Hazelwood. With few exceptions—and little fanfare from the media—the courts and Coast Guard have agreed, finding him innocent of criminal mischief, operating a watercraft while intoxicated, reckless endangerment, and misconduct. As he helps prepare the appeal to his civil charge of recklessness and waits for the Alaska Supreme Court to issue a decision on (brace yourself) the state's appeal of the appellate court's second overturning of Hazelwood's Class B misdemeanor conviction for negligent discharge of oil—a decision that will lead to either a new trial or, perhaps, the final dismissal of the criminal case—one would expect a level of anticipation, the heady possibility that one chapter might be coming to a close. But when I mention this, Hazelwood turns dour.

“Nobody in the maritime industry will touch him,” says his lawyer. “Who could afford to take the PR risk? I mean, bang a dock and it's on the front page: Hazelwood Does It Again!”

“What court do I go to to get my reputation back?” he says brusquely. “I'm not trying to impress anybody. I just don't want this hanging over my head. The damage is done. I've got to get on with my life.”

Which mostly involves defending himself in court, a well-choreographed piece of tradecraft that Hazelwood and his attorneys know cold: Show how the accident happened, and then show that there is no evidence that Hazelwood's actions or behavior were anything less than normal; in short, let him blend innocuously into the larger context. Now, standing amid the boxes, Hazelwood moves through the key elements of his case with disarming ease. The evidence is all here, right here:

  • Stripped to essentials, the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef because it departed the shipping lanes to avoid ice—a maneuver executed by the Brooklyn and the Arco Juneau just hours before—and failed to turn back into the lanes before striking the reef.
  • Third mate Gregory Cousins, testifying in the criminal and the civil trials, shouldered much of the blame for failing to execute the turn that Hazelwood had ordered. After outlining the maneuver and asking Cousins twice if he was comfortable making the turn, Hazelwood left the bridge at 11:50 p.m. Cousins phoned Hazelwood at 11:55 to say he was beginning the turn but then failed to check that helmsman Robert Kagan followed his commands, spending precious minutes charting the ship's position. Cousins was on the phone to Hazelwood, saying, “I think we're in serious trouble,” when they felt the first jolt a few minutes after midnight.
  • “There was no reason to do what I did that evening,” Cousins testified. “I shouldn't have allowed myself to become inattentive.” Hoping to secure testimony against Hazelwood, the state gave Cousins immunity against prosecution; plaintiffs in the civil suit did not press charges against him lest he complicate their case against Exxon and Hazelwood; the Coast Guard cited him for negligence and suspended his license for nine months. “To the public and the press, 'third mate' has the ring of 'cabin boy,'” says Hazelwood. “Cousins was a trained, licensed navigational officer, a good man. He's still a good man.”
  • Helmsman Kagan, when ordered to make the turn, did not execute it fully. Kagan earned the nickname Rain Man during the criminal trial for mixing up his right and left and for muttering to himself during cross-examination, “Why is he asking me that? I wish he wouldn't ask me that.” Employment records showed that Kagan required “constant supervision.” “I put a lot of it on Kagan,” says Paul Larson, who led the Coast Guard investigation. “He does his job, and we're talking about something else today.”
  • The post-grounding radio transmissions in which Hazelwood said he was trying to “extract the ship from the reef” were misleading. He only called for forward throttle—not reverse, as would have been necessary if he'd wanted to free the vessel. By keeping the ship pressed firmly against the reef, he minimized the spill and the danger to his crew.
  • The blood tests that showed Hazelwood to be intoxicated were mishandled. Drawn ten and a half hours after the grounding (because of variance in individual metabolic rates, most states, including Alaska, disallow any test performed more than three hours after an event), the blood was shipped to the lab in tubes without a chemical needed to keep the blood from fermenting, invalidating the results. In addition, the labels on the tubes were switched to make it appear as if they did contain preservative, a switch revealed by discrepancies in laboratory log entries.

Even in the criminal trial, before evidence of the blood mishandling had surfaced, state prosecutors were unable to persuade a jury that Hazelwood was intoxicated at the time of the grounding. By his own admission, Hazelwood drank “two or three vodkas” between 4:30 and 6:30 the night of the grounding. To account for his 0.061 blood-alcohol content ten hours after the accident, however, either (1) his blood-alcohol level upon boarding the ship had been .35, a level he could have achieved only by consuming 16 to 20 drinks in the course of the day, or (2) he had sneaked a few drinks sometime after boarding the ship at 8:25 p.m. With the testimony of 21 witnesses, including Cousins and the Coast Guard officers who first boarded the ship, that Hazelwood's behavior had not been impaired in any way, and with no hard evidence of shipboard drinking beyond two empty bottles of low-alcohol beer in Hazelwood's stateroom, the jury took little time in deliberating the intoxication charge.

As for his widely presumed alcoholism, Hazelwood can refer to records that show his physician had diagnosed him with “dysthymia, a subgrouping of depression, characterized by episodic abuse of alcohol,” he says. “The perception is that I was a drooling idiot, carted off to the dry cleaners. I enrolled myself in a hospital-treatment program back in '85, went to the meetings, and stayed dry for several years. But as has been shown, alcohol had nothing to do with the grounding.”

Other things did, though, and Hazelwood knows them by heart: the Vessel Traffic Service watchstanders, charged with monitoring the vessel's progress through the sound, who failed to spot the missed turn and who later tested positive for marijuana and alcohol; the abysmal state of the Alyeska Pipeline Company's spill-control equipment; the ensuing circus of decision-making by Exxon, Alyeska, and state officials that let a possibly controllable spill get out of control. Accident investigators call it an error chain, and Hazelwood can trace it back as far as you like. What if Cousins had listened to lookout Maureen Jones, who twice brought the Bligh Reef buoy to his attention during the delay in executing the turn? What if Cousins hadn't, as a favor to a friend, offered to work past midnight, when his shift was to have ended? What if the ship hadn't gotten loaded more quickly than anticipated and sailed two hours ahead of schedule? Hazelwood navigates the possibilities as if playing a board game, effortlessly translating chaos into a smooth, inevitable progression. He smiles ruefully, shrugs his shoulders, rolls his eyes to the sky.

Then conversation turns, as it always must, to the central element in the error chain, Hazelwood's absence from the bridge. Why did he leave? To prepare departure messages to send to Exxon, he famously explained. Why couldn't he have waited? Why didn't he know about Kagan's shortcomings? How could he leave the bridge if there was even the slightest chance of a mistake?

“I left,” he says slowly, staring at the floor, “because there wasn't a compelling reason to stay. I really can't comment further on that.”

Hazelwood's lawyers argue that their client gave Cousins good instructions, that other tanker captains had vacated the bridge at that point in the voyage; that having been told the turn was beginning, Hazelwood had no reason to suspect anything was amiss. It's an argument that might work in court, but not everywhere.

“It all boils down to the fact that Hazelwood wasn't on the bridge,” says J. Samuel Teel, professor of nautical science at Maine Maritime Academy. “I'm sure he's a great guy and a good captain, but he should have been there and he wasn't. He's got to live with that.”

“I say to this day it wasn't his fault. He just put too much trust in certain people,” says Captain John Wilson, an old Hazelwood friend and shipmate. “Joe should have watched his mate a little bit closer.”

“One of the finest tanker men I ever met,” roars Captain Russ Nyborg, a legendary San Francisco Bay skipper who served as a model for young Hazelwood in his early Exxon days. “He left it to somebody else and somebody else screwed up. My wife and I were very worried about him for a long time after it happened. He's so proud, you know, and he's had the shit kicked out of him.” The old captain's voice goes rough with clumsily camouflaged concern. “So how's he doing, anyway?”

Months and years slid past, interest in the spill waned, and still Hazelwood kept to the shadows. He retreated to his wife and daughter and his cadre of Long Island friends, the ones who know him as Jeff, a childhood name that distinguishes him from his father. Never social (hosting one party in 14 years, according to a neighbor), he spent time reading, preparing for his defense, and occasionally sailing the 16-foot Hobie Cat he kept in the backyard. Friends worried about him, said he was quieter, more introspective. But at rare gatherings, they bullshitted and talked sports and shipping just like always, and when they were sailing on Long Island Sound and passed a grounded boat and somebody said, “Little deja vu, Jeffie?” Hazelwood waited through the silence and replied, “Haven't heard that one before,” and everybody laughed loudly.

“Joe was a class act throughout this thing,” says Jerzy Glowacki, chief engineer on the Exxon Valdez and one of Hazelwood's barmates in the hours before. “He's taken the full brunt of this, quietly, with dignity, under great stress, and I think he's able to do it because of his intelligence. He knows what is happening; he understands the reasons. I don't think he's able to shrug it off. I don't think he ever will. Whatever it is, he's carrying it inside, and I'm sure it's very heavy.”

His parents wait and wonder, too. The summer after the grounding, his mother, a proper Georgia-bred Presbyterian, offered to arrange for a pastor to meet with him. When Hazelwood ran into the man at a funeral, the pastor said, “Whatever you did up there, God doesn't judge you.” Hazelwood replied, “Sure as shit sounds like you're judging me,” and walked off.

“I keep hoping Jeff will talk to me,” Margaret Hazelwood tells me in her buttery accent. “I'll sometimes try to start such a conversation. I'll say things like, 'I wonder how I would have reacted in your situation.' But he won't talk.” Hazelwood's 77-year-old mother sits with ankles crossed demurely in her impeccably furnished home in Huntington, where she and her husband raised two lawyers, a symphony conductor, and a tanker captain. Copies of Canterbury Tales, Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, and the Oxford Companion to English Literature perch near the piano. Three jade monkeys crouch on an end table: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Joe, the eldest, lives a few minutes away, and these days they see him often.

“To be honest,” booms Joe Sr., a magisterial, blunt-spoken man with impressively muscled arms, “I don't think he really has handled it. He's caught up in the legal aspect of it—I mean, he won't go to the bathroom without consulting those fellows.

“Now here's a fact,” he continues, leaning forward. “Somebody took a poll of all the tanker skippers who went in and out of Prince William Sound, and half of them said that they would have gone below at that point.” He sits back and places an arm on the edge of the couch. “It was fate, luck, whatever you want to call it.”

Joe Sr. knows about fate; specifically, how to kick it in the ass. He was a crackerjack pilot, first flying torpedo bombers for the Marine Corps in the western Pacific, then commercial jets for Pan Am's long-distance runs to South America, Cuba, Fairbanks, Tokyo, wherever. Every day was a mission: a 5:30 a.m. run followed by calisthenics followed by one or two hours studying flight manuals, approach patterns, and charts—not because it was mandatory, but because “that's what it took to be a good pilot.” Joe Sr. was good enough to become the first commercial flight engineer to work past the age of 60. At 75, he looks raw and strong, still rising at 5:30 each morning to get his mileage in. His second son, Matthew, remembers his father saying that real accidents happen only to good pilots. What other people call accidents are actually mistakes.

“When Jeff was growing up, his father was flying,” says his mother. “He would see the uniform, and it was something special. He saw his father strive to make every six-month check with everything perfect—and Jeff was the same way. He was so proud of his safety record. He felt he couldn't be less than perfect, ever.”

She smiles in infinite understanding.

“All the children, they always tried to impress their father.”

A brilliantly muggy June Sunday, and Hazelwood pilots his brown 1984 Chevy S-10 van along the jungly byways of Long Island's north shore. Festooned with rust, its starboard headlight housing patched with duct tape, the van cuts an incongruous profile as it chugs past the velvety lawns of towns like Cold Spring Harbor and Oyster Bay. Outfitted in a faded blue T-shirt, jeans, and decrepit flip-flops, he drives carefully, checking three times at a stop sign before proceeding. “Some people find it hard to believe,” he says, “but I am a fairly cautious driver.”

Generous in its concealments and discretions, Long Island is a good home for exiles. To the east stretches the old Gold Coast, Gatsby's East and West Egg. To the south, in Massapequa, resides Mr. Joey Buttafuoco. John Lennon had a house on the north shore, as did former tennis brat John McEnroe. Kerouac lived in Northport, just over the hill from Huntington. There's a palpable sense of refuge in the twisty roads and the Amazonian foliage, of secrets kept, of barriers not to be crossed. Different worlds can coexist, and that, as much as anything, is what Hazelwood enjoys. “You got the WASP thing with the super-rich, you've got the big-hairs with their Mr. T starter sets, and somewhere in the middle you've got schlubs like me.”

After a few quick errands, he steers the van toward West Shore Marina in Huntington, where a childhood friend keeps a 33-foot sailboat. “If the wind's blowing, we'll take her out for a spin,” he says, but when we reach the dock the air hangs thick and still.

He walks down anyway, past the buffed fiberglass haunches of $500,000 motor cruisers, past the blond woman in a jet-black bikini, to a sleek, teak-trimmed craft with a 45-foot mast. He checks the boat, running his hands over the standing rigging and cleated lines. The boat is named Too Slick, a fact that dictates a brief laugh.

Hazelwood comes to the marina often, sometimes to sail, other times just to hang around the boat and keep things shipshape. He's known around here for helping out when newbies need a hand.

“See that guy?” He points to a jowly man in a 42-foot Catalina. “He was having trouble docking that thing, pussyfooting it around, so I hopped aboard and we brought it in. Sometimes docking calls for a bold move.”

Around the docks, Hazelwood finds the kind of moments he seeks, the kind of moments he lives for: to stand tall on some stranger's flying bridge and shoot the breeze about bold moves and Tiger Woods and the goddamn Yanks in complete and blessed anonymity. Anonymity, to Hazelwood, is the point of it all, the state of grace, the reward for his silence; he believes in its redemptive power more than he believes in himself, more than he believes in heaven, even more than he believes in the legal system. At moments like these, Joe Hazelwood does not exist; there are no jokes, no secrets, no history, no coincidences to anticipate. There's only a guy in flip-flops, a regular schlub, a man aware of nothing perhaps but the final crowning irony: In banishing the sins of the past, Joe Hazelwood is also banishing the very things that might set him free.

Gregory Cousins is back at sea, working as a mate for a private carrier. Robert Kagan, the only crew member on the bridge that night to receive no penalties, lives in Louisiana, having negotiated retirement from Exxon. (“He's been an emotional wreck since the spill,” his wife says.) Exxon completed its most profitable year ever, with a net 1996 income of $7.5 billion. Prince William Sound now sports escort tugs, tanker-tracking systems, a variety of radar and radio beacons, and a 60-foot tower anchored to Bligh Reef that rises above the waves like a beckoning finger. The beaches look clean, but dig beneath the surface and you'll find oil.

Joe Hazelwood doesn't think much about the future. He'll get an Exxon pension in a decade or so. Maybe he'll travel. Maybe he'll move south, play golf. He's planning to sell his Hobie Cat. He doesn't use it anymore, and besides, he could use the money.

“It's still day by day for me,” he says. “I can't imagine this ever being over. It's always there, like the albatross on the Ancient Mariner.

“Your watch is never over as captain,” he continues. “Am I angst-ridden with guilt? No. Am I feeling responsible as a professional? Well, whether it's a mechanical failure or anything else that grounds you, it sucks.”

As we walk back to the car, Hazelwood spots a 50-foot cabin cruiser revving clumsily into its slip. A fortyish woman in gold-encrusted sunglasses tweezes a deck line between flamingo-colored nails; her bald and sweating husband spins the wheel aimlessly. Hazelwood moves quickly, grabbing the decklines and snubbing them neatly around the dock cleats, positioning a fender, waving for the captain to back it in, tightening the lines. Then he's shaking hands with the husband, and the flamingo nails are applauding, and everybody's happy.

“How ya doin' today?” Hazelwood says, and then they do what Joe Hazelwood wants them to do, what he wanted all of us to do all along. They smile at him. O

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