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12 weeks after Key Bridge collapse, Dali crew still on board. Now a deal means some could be leaving

Jean Marbella and Madeleine O'Neill, Baltimore Sun on

Published in News & Features

They’ve been stuck aboard the Dali container ship for more than 12 weeks now: as the vessel crashed into and destroyed the Francis Scott Key Bridge, as divers recovered the bodies of six road workers who were killed while filling potholes on the span, as a massive, floating salvage operation sprang up around them to clear the debris.

The crew remained on board even as explosives were set off to break up the huge piece of the bridge that had landed on its bow and stranded it in the river and the battered vessel was refloated and tugged back into port a month ago.

Now a deal between attorneys for the city and the ship’s owner and manager means eight of the crew members could be heading home as soon as Thursday. The city dropped its objections, filed late Tuesday, to the crew members’ departure. A federal judge had scheduled a hearing for 10 a.m. Thursday to weigh whether to keep them here at least for now.

It’s not clear whether that hearing will proceed.

The eight, including a cook, several seamen, a fitter, an oiler and a general steward, now may be able to fly home.

The city, which has filed a claim against the Dali’s Singapore-based owner and manager for negligence in the bridge collapse, had feared it might lose the opportunity to question crew members as part of the litigation should they leave the country.

But attorneys for the ship’s owner and manager promised it would make those crew members available for depositions at a later date.

The latest flurry of legal activity comes as the ship is soon to leave Baltimore for Norfolk, Virginia, perhaps as early as Friday, where it will undergo initial repairs.

Darrell Wilson, a spokesman for Synergy Marine Group, the vessel operator, said the plan is to use a replacement crew for the trip to Norfolk, but there is “no firm timeline” at the moment.

In any event, the legal wrangling could have extended the ordeal for crew members, who have not been allowed off the ship since before it set sail in the early morning hours of March 26, only to lose power and careen into the bridge. Attempts to get them shore leave during this time have been unsuccessful.

Preventing crew members who likely had nothing to do with the crash from going home is “unfair,” said David Heindel, president of the Seafarers International Union, which represents mariners aboard U.S.-flagged vessels. (The Dali flies under the flag of Singapore and is owned by Grace Ocean Private Ltd. and managed by Synergy Marine Pte Ltd.)

“There are a lot of crew that have no responsibility for what happened,” he said.

“The problem is these things can go on for years,” added Heindel, whose union is based in Camp Springs, Maryland.

Heindel is among a group of unions representing seafarers around the world who signed a statement last month expressing concern about the treatment of the Dali crew. They said the crew members’ morale had dipped and they feared being “criminalized” over the incident. They’ve been questioned as part of the investigation into the collision, and had their phones confiscated by the FBI, which is among the investigating agencies, although they’ve received replacement devices.

Now it appears they face further questioning as part of the claims seeking damages against the ship for the bridge’s loss, which temporarily shut down the since reopened Port of Baltimore. The bridge itself, which is a part of the Baltimore Beltway, likely will take several years to rebuild.

In court filings, attorneys for the city quoted assurances they had received in April that the crew was going to remain on the vessel for the foreseeable future, and would be given ample notice should that change. But then, at about 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, they wrote, an attorney for Grace and Synergy emailed to say that eight crew members would be flying home “likely on or about” Thursday.

Those crew members, the attorney for the ship said, already had been interviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice, which did not object to their departure.


The email from the ship’s attorney, William Bennett, set off the current round of legal activity, with the city and another party seeking to preserve their access to crew members.

“If they are permitted to leave the United States,” the city “may never have the opportunity to question or depose them,” wrote Adam J. Levitt, one of the lawyers representing Baltimore.

The crew members’ defense attorney, Owen Duffy, who is based in New York, has indicated he would advise the men to invoke their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, according to the email from Bennett. Duffy, reached by phone Tuesday evening, declined to comment.

Bredar had asked for lawyers who can speak for the Justice Department, Customs and Border Patrol, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Coast Guard to attend Thursday’s hearing.

The Rev. Joshua Messick, who directs the Baltimore International Seafarers’ Center, is among those who tried unsuccessfully to get shore leave for the Dali crew. Crews generally travel on visas that allow them in the U.S. while their vessels are docked here, but only for 29 days, a period of time that lapsed while the Dali was stranded in the Patapsco.

Messick said advocates applied for the crew to be allowed to leave the vessel to attend a religious festival at a local temple earlier this month.

“It went nowhere,” he said. “It’s been a constant kind of frustration.”

A CBP spokesman would say only that the Coast Guard requires commercial ships “to maintain a safe minimum manning level. … Current crew members who want to disembark, temporarily or to depart the United States permanently, would need to make arrangements with CBP to obtain proper entry documents.”

The Coast Guard declined a request from the ship’s lawyers to help secure crew members temporary parole through CBP, making it impossible for the men to stay in the country even briefly after leaving the vessel, according to the email from Bennett. It is not clear whether the request was for the crew to stay in Baltimore after the Dali leaves for Norfolk.

The Coast Guard did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday, which was a federal holiday.

Messick said the aid groups were at least able to bring a bit of home to the crew aboard the Dali on June 9. That was when India played archrival Pakistan in the most hotly anticipated match of the T20 Cricket World Cup.

“It was a match they’d all been waiting for,” said Andy Middleton, who runs the Apostleship of the Sea, another group that assists seafarers docked at the port.

Middleton had brought a laptop to hook up to the ship’s TV set, and the crew watched what turned out to be a thriller of a game, with India coming from behind to win.

“There were,” he said, “some loud cheers.”


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