Fired Exxon Valdez tanker Capt. Joseph Hazelwood, center, stands with his attorney Thomas Russo, left, during his arraignment in Hauppauge, N.Y., on April 5, 1989, on fugitive charges stemming from the grounding of the Valdez and subsequent oil spill in Alaska. Dick Yarwood/Associated Press

Joseph Hazelwood, captain of the tanker Exxon Valdez when it ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in March 1989, leaking 10.8 million gallons of crude oil in a massive environmental catastrophe that ravaged maritime habitats and brought sweeping inquests into who was to blame, has died. He was 75.

The death was confirmed Sept. 10 to The Washington Post by a family associate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to respect the wishes of Hazelwood’s widow, Suzanne Hazelwood, not to make comments to the media. The New York Times cited a nephew, Sam Hazelwood, confirming the death.

No other details on the death were given, including the date and location. Hazelwood lived on Long Island in Huntington, N.Y. The maritime website first reported his death on July 22, but gave no further information. Another shipping website,, citing a “source close to his family,” reported  Hazelwood died July 21.

Other oil spills have exceeded the Exxon Valdez disaster in sheer size – more than 200 million gallons of oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 from the damaged rig BP Deep Water Horizon – but the environmental harm along Alaska’s nearly pristine coastline and coves was near total in some places and on full display as one of the largest ecological disasters in U.S. history.

The ship hit a reef less than 2 miles from shore amid crucial ecosystems for sea birds and marine life including nearby salmon breeding grounds. About 200 miles of coastline were “heavily or moderately oiled” as the spill spread across 1,300 miles, according to the Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, a federal-state group that tracked the cleanup and aftermath.

A few minutes after midnight on March 24, 1989, the Coast Guard received a radio call from Hazelwood, who was not on the bridge when the ship went aground.

“Evidently we’re leaking some oil,” he said, “and we’re going to be here for quite a while.” For days, oil gushed from the single-hull ship until the damage was sealed.

The toll to the animal population included up to 250,000 dead seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals and 250 bald eagles, the trustee council estimated. Coastal communities that depended on fishing were devastated – and decades later, have yet to fully recover. Images of rescue teams scrubbing oil-soaked birds and shoveling gooey beach rocks became rallying points for environmentalists and others pushing for stronger controls on the oil industry.

The disaster helped shape sweeping changes the following year to bolster the Environmental Protection Agency’s oil transport regulations – including phasing out single-hulled tankers like the Exxon Valdez – and strengthen the EPA’s ability to respond to spills in U.S. waters. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 took a direct swipe at the Exxon Valdez, banning from Prince William Sound any ship that had “spilled more than 1,000,000 gallons of oil into the marine environment after March 22, 1989.” That effectively blocked the vessel from Alaskan waters.

“Had a spill the extent of the Exxon Valdez disaster occurred off the United States East Coast, the devastation would have stretched from Cape Cod to Chesapeake Bay,” wrote Walter Parker, head of the Alaska Oil Spill Commission, in 1990.

Hazelwood, meanwhile, faced court battles and became – with his full beard and fisherman’s cap – the face of the disaster and the questions over potential neglect, appearing in newspapers and magazines around the world. A Time magazine cover from July 1989 had an illustration of Hazelwood with the headline “Fateful Voyage.”

In March 1990, Hazelwood was acquitted of a felony charge of operating a vessel while intoxicated. He was, however, convicted of a misdemeanor charge of negligently discharging oil, ordered to perform 1,000 hours of community service, including helping clean oil-fouled beaches, and pay a $5,000 fine.

He never returned to duty as a merchant seaman, but in 1992 helped train students at his alma mater, the State University of New York’s Maritime College in the Bronx, including courses on standing watch on the bridge of a ship.

Hazelwood was not on the Exxon Valdez bridge when the 987-foot ship hit the reef, hours after beginning a voyage bound for Long Beach, Calif., with nearly 60 million gallons of Prudhoe Bay crude. He had set a bypass route through Prince William Sound to avoid drift ice from a glacier.

Hazelwood left the bridge at 11:50 p.m., turning it over to the third mate, Gregory Cousins. At 11:55 p.m., Cousins phoned Hazelwood that he was beginning the turn back to the original route after clearing the ice, according to court testimony and records. The helmsman apparently did not make the turn fast enough to avoid collision with the reef.

“There was no reason to do what I did that evening,” Cousins testified. “I shouldn’t have allowed myself to become inattentive.”

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded in March 1990 that the third mate had failed to “properly maneuver the vessel because of fatigue and excessive workload.” Hazelwood, the report said, “failed to provide a proper navigation watch because of impairment from alcohol.” The Exxon Shipping Co., the NTSB added, “failed to provide a fit master and a rested and sufficient crew.”

In an interview with an Alaska state trooper taped hours after the ship ran aground, Hazelwood said he had a beer before he sailed and a “phony beer” once underway, a reference to a nonalcoholic brand.

At the trial, jurors were told that tests showed Mr. Hazelwood’s blood alcohol level was below the Alaska legal limit for piloting a vessel about 10 hours after the grounding. The prosecution argued that the reading suggested he could have been legally intoxicated when the ship hit the reef.

In 1991, a U.S. District Court in Anchorage accepted acknowledgments of criminal responsibility from Exxon Corp. and Exxon Shipping Co., including a $100 million criminal fine, as part of a $1.1 billion agreement to settle criminal and civil charges. The ship was transferred to SeaRiver Maritime Inc., an ExxonMobil subsidiary, and renamed S/R Mediterranean. It was later sold to a Hong Kong-based shipping firm and scrapped in 2012.

In 2014, Hazelwood joined a CNN correspondent at a simulator to revisit the moments before the 1989 grounding. He said he altered the normal course through Prince William Sound after reports of ice floes from the Columbia Glacier entering the shipping lanes. Hazelwood said that he notified the Coast Guard of the new bearings and that it was acknowledged.

“No problem,” he said. “Two ships prior to me had done it.”

He turned over the bridge to the third mate, Cousins, with instructions to return to the normal route once clear of the ice. “I went down to my office,” he told CNN. “I had some paperwork to fill out and I wanted to look at the latest weather.”

“The turn was initiated,” he added, “just initiated late.” The ship could not avoid Bligh Reef.

He couldn’t account for what happened in those critical minutes, however. “Don’t know,” he said. “Sad to say I wasn’t there.”

Joseph Jeffrey Hazelwood was born Sept. 24, 1946, in Hawkinsville, Ga., and later moved to Long Island when his father, a pilot for Pan American World Airways, took up a new base. Hazelwood received a bachelor’s degree in marine transportation in 1968 from Maritime College.

He rose through the shipping ranks and was a captain in the Exxon fleet in his early 30s. After the spill, he worked as a paralegal and maritime consultant for what is now Chalos & Co., an international law practice, which also represented him in his legal cases.

Survivors include Hazelwood’s wife, Suzanne; daughter Alison; a brother, Joshua, and two grandsons.

“I would like to offer an apology, a very heartfelt apology, to the people of Alaska,” Hazelwood said in an interview for the 2009 book “The Spill: Personal Stories From the Exxon Valdez Disaster.” But he remained defensive, saying he had been unfairly vilified even though “the true story is out there for anybody who wants to look at the facts.”

Hazelwood kept alive a smoldering resentment. In a 1997 interview with Outside magazine, he showed off a framed collage of newspaper and magazine clippings of the coverage. “Drunk at sea,” read one headline. “Skipper’s rise and fall,” said another.

“What court do I go to, to get my reputation back?” he said.

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