April 24, 1989 12:00 PM

When Jeff Hazelwood was applying to maritime college back in the 1960s, one of his biggest boosters was Gordon Campbell, his gymnastics coach at Huntington High School on New York’s Long Island. Campbell knew well the discipline his athletes had faced. “If a boy used an obscene word, he was off the team,” he says. “If he smoked a cigarette, he was off the team. If he took one drink, he was off the team.” Hazelwood, however, “was the kind of boy you could trust. A reliable boy, A rock. The sort of person you’d want on the bridge of your ship.”

No longer, Jeff Hazelwood, now 42, was no rock—nor was he on the bridge—the night of March 23, when the fully laden supertanker he commanded ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Before sailing on the Exxon Valdez that night, Hazelwood had been to the Pipeline Club in Valdez, a seamen’s hangout. Citing blood tests taken after the accident and the comments of crew members, who said that Hazelwood had appeared unsteady, federal investigators determined that he had been drunk, had left the bridge in charge of an unqualified mate, and perhaps had even set the ship on automatic pilot, thereby committing it to a collision with the reef that gouged it open.

Within hours, 10 million gallons of oil flooded across the Sound’s pristine waters and onto TV screens around the world. The pictures were grim and painfully predictable: dying wildlife, blackened coastlines and angry residents protesting Exxon’s slow and futile attempts at cleanup. One investigator, searching for clues to what was quickly becoming the largest and most destructive oil spill in U.S. history, asked Hazelwood just what the problem had been that night. “I think you’re looking at it,” Jeff Hazelwood reportedly replied.

For years, it turned out, the onetime high school gymnast had been grappling with a drinking problem that should have kept him off the bridge of any ship. Troubling signs had reportedly appeared as early as 1981, when a seaman claimed that Hazel-wood had struck him while intoxicated. A woman crew member said that the captain would sometimes invite her to his cabin after the 5 A.M. shift and break out a bottle of liquor . By 1984, a drunk-driving arrest in Huntington had resulted in a 17-month suspension of his license and mandatory treatment for alcohol abuse. A similar arrest last year led to another suspension and more rehabilitation. But Hazelwood was still having trouble maintaining sobriety.

“I know that he attended a few AA meetings,” says one member of the Huntington Alcoholics Anonymous chapter. “I know he has a problem because I’ve also seen him coming out of town bars after he stopped coming to the meetings. And he didn’t look me in the eye.”

To many of Hazelwood’s acquaintances, however, the revelations have come as a surprise. Joseph J. Hazelwood, one of four children born to Joseph and Margaret Hazelwood, had done well in high school, had gone straight to the State University of New York Maritime College and had eventually changed his name to Jeff to set himself apart from his father, a longtime Pan American Airways pilot. After graduating in 1968, he joined Exxon, moved quickly up the ranks and earned his master’s license at 31, a decade earlier than most Exxon captains.

His life fell into a familiar pattern. For six months of the year he was one of a handful of supertanker captains carrying cargoes of crude up and down the West Coast. During his six months ashore, he was often adrift. Yet to his Huntington neighbors, Hazelwood seemed at peace, a solid citizen. His wife, Suzanne, led the local Girl Scout troop. His daughter, Alison, 13, excelled in a class for gifted students at Finley Junior High School.

“I know him for twenty years,” says Fred Wall, 53, a tug handyman who works in Huntington Harbor. “He’s a boat man, you know. Loves the water, Comes down to the harbor during his vacation, goes out with the lobstermen and helps pull in the nets. Only got into trouble when he had too much time on his hands. It’s the six months on and six months off. Hard for anyone to deal with so much time. But you know, he loved the water. Loved nature. He’d stand here on the shore and look out at the water and just admire it, you know?”

Ironically, Hazelwood was an active environmentalist, according to friends. He opposed construction of a nuclear power plant at nearby Shoreham, arguing that fossil fuels offered less of an ecological threat than nuclear power. He voiced passionate complaints when the Huntington sewage treatment plant accidentally released raw waste into the harbor, closing the beaches for an entire summer.

“Jeff Hazelwood was very outspoken,” says Audrey Beegle, a neighbor. “He was very worried about the future of the environment.”

Now, with the Exxon Valdez oil slick spread over 2,600 square miles of inland sea and threatening a $100 million fishing industry, Hazelwood is more worried about his own future. He was summarily fired by Exxon when blood tests taken nine hours after the grounding showed an unacceptably high blood alcohol level. After Hazelwood’s first rehabilitation, “there was a slipup,” said Exxon board chairman L.G. Rawl. “We should have given him a job back, but not this job.”

Last week there were few signs of his presence at the Hazelwoods’ shingled Cape Cod house in Huntington. In the backyard a yellow catamaran sat on blocks, looking landlocked and lost. It is, most likely, the fate that awaits Hazelwood himself.

The disgraced captain now faces misdemeanor charges that could result in 27 months imprisonment and $11,000 in fines. His bail, initially set at $1 million by an angry judge who likened the damage in Prince William Sound to that of Hiroshima, was reduced to $25,000 after Hazelwood’s lawyers appealed and he had spent a night in jail.

Yet to many, still, the ongoing disclosures of Hazelwood’s history seem as impenetrable as Alaska’s now-polluted shorelines. When the TV news showed him in Alaska, Gordon Campbell, his old high school coach, didn’t recognize him. The name threw him off at first; Campbell only knew Hazelwood as Jeff, not Joseph. And Hazelwood hadn’t yet shaved his beard, which Campbell had never seen. But when Hazelwood tilted his head in a certain way, Campbell recognized his old pupil at last. “That was Jeff,” he says. “Of course, I couldn’t believe the stories. Jeff would never take a drink. And he looked different. But then, you don’t know what happens to a person over the years.”

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