EDITOR'S NOTE: Early on March 24, 1989, Dean Fosdick, the Alaska bureau chief of The Associated Press, was awakened around 5:30 a.m. by a phone call. The caller had a tip that a tanker had run aground outside Valdez.
Fosdick quickly confirmed with a top Coast Guard official that the Exxon Valdez had struck a reef and was leaking thick, toxic crude oil into Prince William Sound, and sent out first word to the world of what at the time was the nation's worst-ever oil spill.
The AP dispatched more than a dozen reporters, photographers and editors to cover the disaster. For a generation of people, the stories and the images of fouled coastline, of sea otters, herring and birds soaked in oil, of workers painstakingly washing crude off the rugged shoreline, became seared in their memories.
Twenty five years after their original publication, the AP is making this report, by Susan Gallagher, and images, taken by Jack Smith and John Gaps III, among others, available to subscribers:
GROUNDED TANKER SPILLS 270,000 BARRELS OF OIL OFF ALASKA
A tanker ran aground on a reef and ripped holes in its hull Friday, gushing millions of gallons of thick crude oil into pristine Prince William Sound in the largest spill in U.S. history.
The Exxon Valdez, a 987-foot tanker owned by Exxon Shipping Co. Inc., struck Bligh Reef about 25 miles from Valdez, the northernmost ice-free port in the United States, spilling an estimated 270,000 barrels or 11.3 million gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean, the Coast Guard said.
Early Friday the tanker was losing 20,000 gallons of oil per hour, but the outflow slowed to a trickle later Friday. An oil slick snaked about five miles from the ship as wind and tide pushed the crude oil into the sound and away from shore.
"This is the largest oil spill in U.S. history and it unfortunately took place in an enclosed water body with numerous islands, channels, bays and fiords," said Richard Golob, publisher of the Golob Oil Pollution Bulletin.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation said three tanks on the ship's right side and five tanks along the centerline were punctured. The tanks on the left side appeared intact, the agency said.
Exxon was bringing in three planeloads of cleanup crews from around the world.
"A spill of this size in such a complex environment promises to be a cleanup nightmare," said Golob, a Cambridge, Mass.-based consultant whose firm has studied oil spills and environmental disasters for 15 years.
"There's no way for the oil to go out to sea without passing through narrow channels," he said by telephone from Cambridge. "As a result a large shoreline area will most likely be polluted and undoubtedly the cleanup will be very extensive and labor intensive."
In Washington, Interior Department spokesman Steve Goldstein said efforts had begun to evacuate waterfowl, sea otters and other wildlife from the danger area. "Obviously some of the waterfowl have already died," he said.
The vessel had loaded 1.26 million barrels of oil at the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. marine terminal at Valdez and left late Thursday for Long Beach, Calif.
The terminal was closed to tanker traffic early Friday while officials tried to deal with the spill. The Federal Aviation Administration closed airspace for six miles around the tanker to keep sightseers at bay.
Officials cut the flow in the trans-Alaska oil pipeline to 800,000 barrels daily from 1.2 million barrels, which would let the terminal operate for nine days before the line has to shut down, said Alyeska spokesman Tom Brennan.
Coast Guard Petty Officer John Gonzales said the tanker's captain was experienced and may have been maneuvering to avoid icebergs from Columbia Glacier when the vessel ran aground. Two Coast Guard investigators went aboard the tanker, he said.
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