Bob Day is 75 now. A fisherman for much of his life, he grew up on Alaska’s Prince William Sound. He will never, ever forget or forgive the desecration of that place he loves — or what he described as “a horror movie in your mind.”
He and his wife, Angela Day, for years operated Dayville Hay & Grain. The Snohomish area business sells feed and livestock supplies. Customers may not know that the store near Harvey Airfield is named for the Alaska village Bob Day’s family settled near Valdez during the Depression.
It’s been 30 years since the Exxon Valdez oil tanker slammed Bligh Reef just after midnight March 24, 1989. With its hull torn open, it spilled 11 million gallons of crude into Prince William Sound. The disaster fouled the waters that were Day’s livelihood. It killed fish, seabirds and other creatures, and coated more than a thousand miles of coastline with oil.
“This was not only where I worked all my life, this is where I grew up,” Day said by phone Wednesday from Arizona.
Angela Day, once on the Snohomish County Planning Commission, is the author of “Red Light to Starboard: Recalling the Exxon Valdez Disaster,” published in 2014 by WSU Press. Her book won the Western Writers of America’s 2015 Spur Award for Best Western Contemporary Nonfiction, and recognition by the American Library Association.
“What inspired me to write the book was Bob’s experience,” she said. “None of what was written in books or scholarly studies really spoke to the spill from fishermen’s perspective.”
The couple moved from Snohomish in 2017. Angela Day, with a doctorate in political science from the University of Washington, has been an adjunct professor at Northern Arizona University. Someone else now runs the Snohomish business, but the Days hope to return to the Northwest.
Reflecting on the environmental catastrophe and an earlier natural disaster, the 1964 Alaska earthquake, Bob Day shared images and emotions he can’t shake.
The quake devastated the salmon run. Yet within a few years, after a survey of Prince William Sound, hatcheries were established. “Our industry came back,” he said.
He had a big boat, the Theresa Marie, named for his daughter, and became successful in the herring fishery. “Then the Exxon oil spill happened,” he said.
In chilling detail, he recalled the morning the supertanker ran aground. He was in Sitka, Alaska, with the winter fishery. He woke in a hotel room before 5 a.m. and turned on the TV. “It was breaking news: Tanker runs aground in Prince William Sound,” he said.
Committed to fish from Sitka for a few days, he got reports from his home waters. “It was like seeing a horror movie in your mind. I couldn’t believe it would really be that bad,” he said. Flying back to Prince William Sound, he saw — and could smell — that it was truly that bad.
“I started smelling that putrid crude oil. We looked down at the water, it was black with oil. Along the beach, we saw dead birds and sea otters,” he said.
Angela Day, 47, met her husband in Snohomish County after the spill. Her book includes his family’s history, which runs deep in Alaska. The Days came to what would become the 49th state from West Virginia during the Depression.
“They got off the boat in Valdez, and Bob’s grandfather decided this is a pretty good place,” she said. “They bought the fort across from Valdez and built a salmon cannery. Dayville became its own little village.”
The trans-Alaska pipeline connects the Prudhoe Bay oil fields on the North Slope with Valdez, the ice-free port to the south. Bob Day’s father, Walter Day, was mayor of Valdez when the pipeline was being built, and had favored the project at the time.
“He believed it would be good for the economy, with the safeguards promised by industry to help prevent a spill,” she said. “That in some ways put Bob at odds with other fishermen.”
Bob was just a boy when he reeled in his first salmon. “I was hooked on the ocean and fishing from then on,” he said.
“I fished every nook and corner of that sound, for shrimp, herring, crab and salmon. I took my son when he was 8. I knew every beach, with big white pearly butter clams,” he said. Seeing the oily mess, “I knew, this is all gone. Everything you lived with.”
More than the personal, “Red Light to Starboard” tells the complex story of the spill’s messy aftermath. The author wrote of what she said were cover-ups, reckless management, safety violations and a broken regulatory system.
The tanker captain, Joseph Hazelwood, was acquitted of being intoxicated while at the helm. He was convicted of negligent discharge of oil — a misdemeanor. He was fined $50,000 and sentenced to 1,000 hours of community service.
Litigation lasted for decades. Exxon paid a fraction of an Anchorage jury’s initial award of $500 billion in punitive damages. Bob Day saw some compensation, but didn’t reveal how much. “It stretched out for years and years,” he said, adding that some victims had died before receiving any money.
“Ten cents on the dollar is what they awarded us,” he said. “When they go to the polls to vote, people should know how powerful big corporations are.”
Bob Day fished until 1991, and lived in Snohomish more than 20 years. He’s proud of his son, Ed, who continues to fish in Alaska. His 97-year-old mother, Gloria Day, and daughter also live there.
Northern Arizona is beautiful, but Bob and Angela Day are planning a move to Whidbey Island. If not a boat, Angela said they at least need a crab pot and some fresh fish in a pan.
“You can’t take the fisherman too far from the sea,” she said.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-346; firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Red Light to Starboard: Recalling the Exxon Valdez Disaster,” by Angela Day, is available on Amazon and from WSU Press.
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