By Erin Sherbert
By Howard Cole
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By Leif Haven
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By Chris Roberts
By Kate Conger
"Unit 48. Forty-eight, Traffic."
The voice comes across on the radio like a hand punching through a pane of glass. Bar Pilot Donald Hughes is calling the United States Coast Guard's Vessel Traffic Service from the command center of a tanker ship, 10 minutes past 9 o'clock at night. The Mundogas Europe, less than 2,000 feet from the Golden Gate Bridge, is bearing down on the gate strait at 14 knots, riding a swift-flowing flood tide that is cresting into the harbor from the sea. In three giant tanks she holds anhydrous ammonia, a hazardous cargo. Mixed with water, it forms a poisonous gas, a visible, toxic cloud reeking of ammonia. If you breathe it, the gas will explode your larynx and burn the insides of your lungs. On board the Mundogas, there are 36 million pounds of anhydrous ammonia, enough to enclose San Francisco in a circle of death.
"Go ahead," Traffic says.
"Ahhhh," Hughes says. A long exhale through gravel. Hughes makes his living steering ships in and out through the perilous waters of the Golden Gate. He boarded the Mundogas just 45 minutes ago, at a buoy 11 miles out to sea, climbing a rope ladder up the side of the ship in the fading light of a mid-March night. "Our steering just went out on us and we're approaching ... we're approaching ..."
There are screams in the background now, men shrieking, a sound that drowns Hughes out, momentarily. His voice surfaces an instant later, like a strong swimmer in rough water: "We're turning right and our steering just went out on us." He spits it out above the shouts and echoes, his diction a slingshot ricochet in the bottom of a metal barrel.
"Roger sir, uh, stand by," Traffic says.
On the radar screens in the building on the top of Yerba Buena Island, Traffic watches the tanker spinning starboard, out of control, in front of the Golden Gate. The screens are orange and black, and light sweeps across them in circles, clockwise, like the circle sunlight makes on the Earth, multiplied, amplified. Outside of Traffic's radar room, cars on the Bay Bridge drive toward the city, which is pulling down its window shades in preparation for Sunday night's slumber, entirely unaware of the wreck that threatens to erupt on its doorstep. That could take its breath away.
"Are you backing down or trying to drop the anchor?" Traffic asks. "Over."
In fact, to prevent the Mundogas Europe and her deadly cargo from slamming into the Golden Gate Bridge, Hughes is doing both. He orders the tanker's engines to a full stop and then slams them into reverse. This torques her single-screw engine, pushing her farther into her starboard swing. Hughes casts her anchors out too, the left anchor first, its heavy chain unwinding into the dark water, some 300 feet deep where the bridge is, shallow -- too shallow -- to starboard, where the ship is heading. The Mundogas is 561 feet long, 30 feet deep in the water, her cargo stowed in pressurized tanks that could crack open if the water hits them. The area she's traveling toward is 30 feet deep, which means she's desperately in peril of running aground. Hughes' voice, preserved on a Vessel Traffic Service tape, is garbled, rushed. Listening to it is like picking your way through a minefield, each noise an explosion. Unintelligible to the unpracticed ear. Hughes says, repeating himself, as if to make it all understood: "You see what happened, uh, the, the, the, the steering went out on us here in front of the bridge."
"Do you have an escort tug?" Traffic asks.
"We don't have no escort," Hughes says. Oil tankers require escort tugs, under state guidelines. But other tankers, including those with hazardous cargoes, do not. The Mundogas, with her broken steering, is on her own.
Total time elapsed: a minute and three seconds.
Across the Bay, the captain of the Chevron Richmond, a tug belonging to the oil company, has heard Hughes on his shipboard radio, Channel 14. Capt. Ern Russell calls in: "We think we would be advantageous if we head it over his way." However, Russell is a half-hour away, near Point Blunt at Angel Island.
"At your own discretion," Traffic says. "We can't request that. He's at the South Tower right now."
"Roger we'll, ah, start heading his way," Russell says. Onscreen, the Chevron Richmond swings around toward the bridge, a slow-moving comet in the radar sea.
"Traffic," Hughes barks. "I need some help." The Mundogas is hard up onto the bridge buoy, about her own length away from the bridge itself. If she hits it, the Mundogas could smash the concrete retaining wall that protects the South Tower.
"Roger sir, we're working on it," Traffic says.
"Chevron Richmond, we're on our way," Russell says. He can see the ship and the bridge in the distance in front of him, lit up beneath the night sky.
"I need help as soon as possible," Hughes pleads into the radio. "Please."
The tanker's all the way over now, to starboard, just 300 feet from the rocks -- gray, waterworn granite -- west of Fort Point, where other ships sleep beneath the water, where the waves break, where the sea stops and the city begins.