You’d expect to see someone like Bill “Tags” Tageson in news footage. Maybe on a ship’s deck as a black box is retrieved from the depths of the Indian Ocean. Or training fishermen how to properly contain oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Or perhaps working to raise a World War II ship-turned-restaurant that sunk off the shore of Alaska.

The Benicia resident has done all these things. His 50-year career has focused on responding to maritime emergencies—ships that have run aground, oil spills in waterways, aircraft crashes at sea.  He’s written manuals on how to contain and clean up oil following a spill.

Tags now spends most of his work time traveling the world to train people from the Navy, Marines and private companies on oil spill response, but he still goes out to spills occasionally.

“A few weeks ago, I got a call for a small spill in the Gulf, but I was in Japan teaching a class and I couldn’t go,” he says.

Tags’ career began in 1965 when he entered Officer Candidate School with the U.S. Navy. He learned diving and salvage skills during in his 21 years in the service. Plaques from various ships decorate his basement work-out space, and his bench-press bar is weighted with anchor chain rather than the usual weights. Tags was a lieutenant commander at the Concord Naval Weapons Station when he retired from the Navy in 1986. He began consulting work in 1988.

Tall, lean and with a distinctive military carriage, Tags warmly recalls memories of diving to inspect hulls when ships ran aground, running around the South Pole while there to work on spill response plans, cleaning up oil in Coos Bay, Ore., when a freighter split in two—and all the characters he met along the way. And yet one particular dive stands out for Tags. It’s one he did for fun last year outside Seattle. He pulls out his phone to show a video of his older daughter diving in old-time equipment, including a Mark V Navy diving helmet.
“You have 200 pounds of gear, you have to have two people to dress you,” he explains while sitting in his home overlooking the Carquinez Strait. “The last time I dove hard hat was in the 1960s. All the diving and salvage work with the Navy was fun, but to do this with my daughter was the highlight.”
Tags, 73, is married to Elizabeth, a
local real estate agent. The couple moved to Benicia in 1981 and raised their two daughters here.

What stands out about your early days in diving and salvage with the Navy? When I was on the Reclaimer, we went out to free the Norwich Victory, which had run aground on Triton Island in the South China Sea between the Philippines and Vietnam.  It was 1966, and I learned what to do from old, gnarly warrant officers. …

There were other, smaller ones in between, but my second big job was when I was on the Conserver. We went out when the Excellency went aground in the exact same spot—well, within 100 yards of the other one. Ships tried to skirt these islands and didn’t make it. You have to offload all the fuel and offload all the cargo and they lighten up.

While we were at the Excellency, we were doing a dive to check for hull damage and we came across two cases of white label San Miguel beer. There were loose bottles scattered around.  So the other diver—old Doc Thomas, he was the ship medic—and I picked them up and brought them back to Hawaii. It turned out that about two-thirds of them were full of salt water and No. 6 fuel oil.

And there was the salvage work we did in Vietnam. I had two tours there.

What did you plan to do when you retired from the Navy? I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. My wife and I owned a shop on First Street—Imports by the Bay—for about five or six years until 1990. I helped out there, but I didn’t want to do that the rest of my life. So I started consulting in 1988.

When did you learn how to clean up oil spills? I learned when I was the West Coast and Pacific rep for the Navy’s supervisor of salvage. I got a sub-specialty in teaching and got technical expertise for oil spill response.

There were a lot of oil spills in the 1970s. I was on the West Coast, the East Coast—everywhere. Whenever a ship goes aground, there’s a lot of oil. Whenever there’s a national spill, as in the Gulf Coast or the Exxon Valdez, all the Navy’s skimmers and booms and boats and people go out.

I’ve responded to more than 20 oil spills over the years.

Did you work on the Gulf spill? I was a technical advisor, and I did a lot of work in the field for that.  I was right there getting my hands dirty. We were working with fishermen who didn’t know how to work the equipment, so I was with them showing them what to do.

It was nonstop for 29 days, then I took a week off because my daughter was graduating from high school and another week to go on vacation with my family. Then I went back for another 29 days straight.  It was hot and humid there – I don’t care to ever go back.

The amount of oil that made it to the shoreline was negligible compared to the Exxon Valdez.

Did you respond to the Exxon Valdez accident? I didn’t. The day it happened (March 24, 1989), I was on a C5 going to Okinawa to search for an Air Force helicopter that had crashed in 1,200 feet of water. I was there for two months.

What search and recovery work stands out in your memory? All the jobs I did were remote and fun. … I was a technical advisor to South African Airlines for their 747 crash off Mauritius in 1987. That was a 30-day search. We found the cockpit voice recorder and a good portion of the plane at 14,500 feet, more than 1,000 feet deeper than the Titanic. We were using remote-operated equipment to search. This was before there were static satellites. We had to wait for one to pass over to get our position on Earth so we could stay on track and not miss anything.

What motivates you to keep working? I really like what I do. I read something a long time ago: “Happiness is doing what one likes and not liking what one has to do.”  That’s what I think as well. I just continue to do what I want to do.

I enjoy the travel—even more with my family. I’d always hurry home from my work trips because I was missing my family. The best part of traveling is the people you meet. People get along, governments don’t.

Any plans to retire? My contract with Navy expires in May next year, and I’d like to taper off starting then. I might still teach a class or two.

What do you do to relax? I don’t know if I’m able to relax. …
I like to read. Elizabeth and I watch movies and have popcorn to really relax.
I make quilts now. I’ve made one for each of my daughters with all their gymnastics and school stuff. Every stitch is a stich of love.