CORDOVA, Alaska -- A year after the Exxon Valdez ground onto a reef in the middle of a frigid March night in 1989, unleashing the worst environmental disaster in U.S history, a striking thing happened.

Amid oil-blinded sea otters and beached whales and the limp black carcasses of 250,000 shorebirds came the slow, sure swim of the pink salmon. The 1990 run was 44.5 million fish, the highest on record, almost four times higher than the year before 11 million gallons of oil spilled into Prince William Sound.

The next year was so high that Alaska fishermen couldn't find cannery space and were sending excess fish to Russia. Herring, the backbone of the North Pacific food chain, flooded fishing nets as well. What in the name of God, people wanted to know, was going on?

Then came the third year--the year the pinks didn't come back. There were barely enough fish to warrant sending out the boats that year and again in 1993, when just 7 million fish swam home. Herring collapsed. The 100,000 metric tons of fish that made their way back to spawn before the spill shrank to 16,000 tons in 1993--and the herring still there were plagued with weird lesions and erratic swimming patterns.

That's when Ron Anderson knew the spill wasn't over. What he is starting to realize now is that it may never be over.

"We dumb fishermen told them this was going to happen. They left us this mess, and here it's 10 years later and we're still in a mess," said Anderson, a lifelong Cordova fisherman who sold his boat earlier this month because hardly anyone can make a living fishing Prince William Sound anymore.

"They keep talking about recovery," scoffed Sylvia Lange, a former supply boat operator. "What about all the ones that died? The sea otters clawed their eyes out. The birds pecked their chests until you could see their hearts beating under their feathers. It was a holocaust. And you can't recover from a holocaust."

It was 10 years ago, on March 24, 1989, when the 987-foot Exxon Valdez pulled out with a load of 53 million gallons of North Slope oil and headed into the icy waters of Valdez Narrows, veering from the shipping lanes in the treacherous strait to avoid an iceberg.

Capt. Joseph Hazelwood's midnight radio transmission still echoes here, like the last words from the Challenger space shuttle crew or Neil Armstrong's first words from the moon. "We're leaking some oil, and we're going to be here for a while."

Full Effect of Spill Still Being Tallied

In the years since, Exxon Corp. has paid out about $3.5 billion in cleanup costs, fines, settlements and compensatory damages while appealing the largest punitive damage judgment ever awarded in the U.S. courts: $5 billion due to 34,000 Alaskans who suffered because of the company's alleged negligence. The ecological impact on the 15,000-square-mile sound is the most studied in history, producing conflicting prognoses ranging from near-recovery to fears of genetic and reproductive damage that could linger for generations.

What is clear, in the remote towns and villages that surround the scene of the largest maritime oil spill in American history, is that almost nothing is what it was before that night.

Maybe the seals would have died anyway, facing a loss of food supplies because of an unusual rise in ocean temperatures in the years before the spill. Maybe the herring would have died anyway, competing with hatchery fish for food. Maybe the fishing industry would have collapsed anyway, when the price of pink salmon, in the face of a worldwide glut, plunged from $1.10 a pound to 5 cents.

Maybe it wasn't all the fault of Hazelwood, who left the bridge that night and turned the mammoth tanker over to an inexperienced third mate. Or the third mate, who gave a delayed order to execute a turn to the helmsman. Or the helmsman, who didn't make the turn the way he was supposed to. Maybe it wasn't the three days of good weather that were lost before Exxon and port officials got the cleanup truly underway. Maybe it wasn't the fact that hot-water washing of the beaches hurt the shellfish more than if they had simply been left alone.

Try blaming a cosmic coincidence of errors, misjudgment, climate change, global economics and 10.8 million gallons of oil for what happened to these 7,300 residents of southern Alaska and they'll likely look back with the kind of stare that greets all departures from the realm of the obvious. Call it what you want, that look says. Just make it go away. Make it be 10 years ago again--no, 10 years and an hour ago.

Dissecting a Disaster

"Technological disasters are considerably different from natural disasters. A natural disaster, once you clean up the hole in the yard or the fire or the flood, you move on. In a technological disaster, there isn't a definite source [of harm] out there. There isn't a Red Cross to tell us when things are right or wrong," said Margy Johnson, a Cordova innkeeper and ex-mayor.

"It's been described as a marathon, and my neighbors are exhausted runners," she said. "The oil companies, every two years you get a new face. They're fresh and ready to go. But I don't know who Exxon is. It's nobody I've ever been able to sit down and talk to. It could very well be that they're bigger than the government and they don't have to be a good corporate citizen because they're already bigger than God. But I don't know. I've never met Exxon."

For their part, Exxon officials wonder what they could have done that they didn't. How can a company go in after a spill, they ask, take full responsibility, spend $2.2 billion cleaning it up, pay $300 million in settlements to anyone who claims they were injured, pay $125 million in fines and penalties and a $900-million civil settlement with the government--and still be found liable for punitive damages, let alone $5 billion?