Crew Stranded in Long Beach
carrier Katerina was halted in Long Beach last September for oil dumping
and more than 20 other violations. Its Filipino crew members had not been
paid for several months. Fears of harassment, retaliation, and loss of
future maritime employment plagued them as the rogue officers had warned
them not to cooperate with government investigators.
Nevertheless, they did cooperate. And now they are paying for it — at home
and, ironically, at the hands of the very government authorities they are
helping to make their case against the shipowner and its top officers.
extensively to the 13 crew members of the Maltese-flag tramp ship and
obtained an 11-page Coast Guard affidavit detailing a laundry list of
illegal and inhumane shipboard practices. Crew names are being withheld
here for their protection. Threats against them range from blacklisting to
physical injury to them and their families.
The men have
been detained for four months as key witnesses in federal court. Initially
they were housed and fed in the San Pedro Holiday Inn under an agreement
the Coast Guard worked out with the Katerina's operators, DST Shipping of
Thessaloniki. But the company completed repairs on the 21-year-old ship in
October and sailed for a Chinese drydock with a new Filipino crew supplied
by DST. The shipowner's agreement to care for the whistle blowers expired
22, three days before Thanksgiving, the crew was evicted from the hotel.
Technically, they were illegal aliens without work permits or any means of
support. Then their saga took a truly bizarre turn. U.S. Marshalls clapped
handcuffs and ankle chains on the crew and put them behind bars in an
immigration detention facility. They spent the day shackled in jail before
being released to a Catholic priest and taken to the International
Seafarers Center in Long Beach.
After a few
weeks of shuttling between the Center, a nearby convent, and a Catholic
church, the seafarers fought back. Stranded, with little money and no idea
of when they would be allowed to return to their families, they threw a
press conference to talk about the way they were treated by the U.S.
Justice Department, the immigration officials, and the Philippine
consulate, which ignored their pleas for help.
Carter, a prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney's office in Los Angeles, told
the Los Angeles Times that the government had no money to pay for food and
shelter and had incarcerated the seafarers to provide them with a place to
stay. Unfortunately, the DOJ hostel included hostile treatment. When the
men left the jail, chafe marks from the shackles were still visible on
their skin. Already fearful and traumatized by bad treatment aboard a ship
that failed even to meet its required daily food allowance of $4.50 per
person, some were in poor mental and physical health, without the means to
contact friends and family at home.
vice consul Naomi Diaz did not return the crew's phone calls from their
jail cell. Nor did a representative from the consulate appear to post bail
as requested. After the press conference, however, the consulate found the
crew a house donated by a member of the Philippine community. Funds and
donations from religious and welfare groups and labor had been keeping the
crew going. Suddenly came an influx of money for the support of the crew
and their families back home.
whistle blowers slipped through the regulatory cracks. The DOJ, Coast
Guard, and Environmental Protection Agency need their testimony to lower
the boom on the shipowners. But these agencies are not legally able to
support the men while they await trial. Jeff Engels, West Coast
coordinator of the International Transport Workers Federation, is working
on two local members of Congress to change the law. He told
Representatives Dana Rohrabacher and Jane Harmon that the ITF favors
legislation requiring the government to shelter witnesses it detains.
But it was
the Seafarers Center press conference that got the authorities' attention.
And while the government bureaucrats pushed paper, the maritime community
got busy. Captain Jim Morgan, head of the Los Angeles pilots, took five
seafarers to a nearby medical clinic and paid for it himself. Captain
Manny Ashemeyer, director of the Marine Exchange, got on the phone to
government bigwigs. "Because of all the help, we are getting our morale
back," said a crew member. "But we are still helpless and uninformed. And
worry is always in our minds."
"I swear to
God I will never go to sea again," said another sailor. "But it was
necessary for us to make the sacrifice (to come forward) to make things
easier for others."
The 13 crew
members are staying in a two bedroom house in Carson. They walk and ride
donated bicycles to nearby shops where they buy food. They got work
permits just before Christmas and say they will do anything to earn their
upkeep. "We are hoping the case is resolved as soon as possible so we can
go home," said one. Federal prosecutor William Carter shares that view.
However, on December 29 the Justice Department filed a separate suit
against the Greek shipowner. The company had earlier fired local counsel
that were representing the officers charged with the crimes and the court
appointed new attorneys. Carter says the trial probably won't begin till
February or March.
Ill Winds at
unions call ships like the Katerina "flag of convenience" vessels. Eager
to cut costs, the owners register their ships in nations with lax shipping
standards and minimal enforcement. So-called FOC ships often use
inexpensive third-world crews who are happy to get the work and are often
acquiescent in a conspiracy of silence.
exemplifies conditions seafarers often put up with, including orders to
break the law. "They do it because they know they can get away with it
when they use third-world crews," said a U.S. official who asked not to be
named. The difference is that this time they miscalculated. This time the
crew decided to report them.
Katerina's master and two engineering officers were arrested for ignoring
environmental laws, falsifying the oil record book, and failing to mention
discharges of untreated oil sludge and bilge water. The Justice Department
charged Captain Ioannis Kallikis, 64, with "corruptly" ordering crew
members not to tell the Coast Guard investigators about the use of a
bypass pipe to avoid the oil/water separator. Also awaiting trial in
federal court are chief engineer Egardo Guinto, 49, and second engineer
Rolan Sullesta, 41. A conviction could mean 20 years in prison for the
captain and 15 years for the engineers.
Philippine government is allegedly investigating the Manila-based manning
(or crew hiring) agency — Michael Mar Phils., Inc. — following a request
from the Philippine consulate in Los Angeles to look at a long list of
charges, ranging from pressure to break the law, withheld wages, and
below-contract pay scales to kickbacks and primitive shipboard conditions
Guard investigator's report obtained reveals a pattern of abusive behavior
by officers, including threats of bodily harm if crew members talked about
illegal activity aboard the ship. It outlines the crew's fear for their
lives and those of their families.
whistle blowers hope for an eventually monetary award from the U.S.
government for their cooperation. Ten more crew members, who were paid off
and flown home, say their ship mates are in trouble with the manning
agency, which says they were overpaid. There are also threats that the
whistle blowers will never see the inside of a ship again.
Coast Guard arrested the vessel in mid-September, the U.S. Justice
Department charged its Greek owner/operators with illegally dumping oil
into Pacific waters and lying to conceal a jerry-rigged system to bypass
the oil/water separator. The vessel's log book contained false entries to
throw off inspectors and the crew was terrorized into remaining silent
about the criminal activity.
blowers from the crew alerted the longshore union and a team from the
International Transport Workers Federation came aboard to check out the
illegal discharges, unsanitary conditions, and primitive living quarters,
including cockroaches in the galley and sleeping quarters, no mattresses,
impure drinking water, and vastly inadequate sanitation.
Simultaneously, a Coast Guard investigation team queried the crew members.
An affidavit by special agent Gerald Cannon details subterfuge,
intimidation, and blatantly false statements by Captain Kallikis and the
two top engine room officers.
representative of the ITF said that the crew had been directed to throw
garbage and oily wastes overboard. He also reported a crew member's
statement that chief engineer Guinto told the crew that if anybody talked,
"they're dead." The ITF official described "deplorable living conditions,"
such as the untreated drinking water.
investigators noted 23 health and safety violations aboard the Katerina,
including the unused oil/water separator, vermin and insects, faulty and
illegal equipment, no hot water and a broken air conditioner. Meanwhile,
crew members talked to personnel at the International Seafarers Center
about the poor food, stopped-up toilets, indescribable piles of human
waste, and a pervasive stench.
"This is the
worst ship in a long time," said assistant manager Mary Bickey. "It's hard
to believe these things occur in 2004. Animals are treated better." One
engine room worker said that "slavery ended 100 years ago but it comes
back at sea"
of the Seas
The fact is
that some rogue vessels are literally sweatshops of the seas. In the
shipping world it is no secret that many seafarers suffer silently. The
crew of the Katerina is an anomaly because they spoke out. A letter to the
Coast Guard signed by three engine room workers said that officer Guinto
had ordered them to discharge sludge and dirty oil at sea as the ship
approached Long Beach. One of them also reported that he overheard Guinto
say that no one should talk about it or they would be shot.
the oil sludge was discharged at a facility at Panama before the Katerina
sailed for Long Beach. However, there was nothing about this in the log
book, which showed that the last such discharge was in March at a
shoreside facility in Syria.
said that when the ship was nearing U.S. ports, chief engineer Guinto
ordered second engineer Sullesta to remove the bypass pipe on the
overboard discharge line in order to hide its use from the Coast Guard.
Sullesta did so, the crew said, and rewelded the two blind flanges to make
it appear that the crew were discharging the oily wastes normally. One
seaman said the bypass pipe was used to dump oil outside of New Orleans,
Houston, Port Everglades, and Long Beach.
Guinto denied these charges. However, another engine room worker
corroborated them, and said that Guinto ordered Sullesta and another
engineer to discharge oil into the ocean at night about two days out of
Panama and prior to entering the Port of Long Beach.
Guinto was questioned, the USCG investigators reported, chief warrant
officer Kenneth Vanek overheard Captain Kallikis telling Guinto not to
cooperate with the Coast Guard and not to talk about the bypass pipe or
the oil water separator.
interview with Guinto, the investigators heard Kallikis outside the room
yelling, "Stop talking... the lawyers are coming." At this point, Guinto
expressed fears for himself and his family's well-being. He ended the
interview, saying he believed the company would retaliate against him and
his family, according to the USCG report.
workers union official Jeff Engels managed to get the crew $130,000 in
back pay. He contends though that DST paid the crew less than the contract
rate and said that crew members complained that the manning agent demanded
they return some of the new funds. They also said that the use of bypass
pipes is widespread, according to Engels.
official worries that the manning agency may blacklist or otherwise
retaliate against the mariners who talked to the authorities. "We could do
a better job of protecting them. We need to make it easier for seafarers
to come forward."
He said the
Environmental Protection Agency, a party to the court action, believes
there should be a seafarer's legal fund set up so that future whistle
blowers could mount an independent defense. Initially the attorney for the
Katerina crew members was a Long Beach law firm paid by owner/operator
DST. Now, however, they have been assigned public defender Lara Baselon,
whom the men say they like. They were uneasy around the company attorneys.
who sail on rogue ships are in a double bind, said Engels. Ship managers
pressure them to look the other way and when they report violations to the
authorities, they risk loss of employment. No wonder, he says, the crew of
the Katerina is "scared to death."
this is a tale of villains and heroes. Among the latter are Elmer Tamayo
Asuncion, an American citizen who is related to one of the men; Father
Henry Hernando; and the women who run the Seafarers Center in Long Beach:
Patricia Pettit and Mary Bickey.
who lives in Van Nuys, drives in to see the men almost every day. He makes
phone calls for them and has taken them sightseeing and on trips to
Disneyland and Las Vegas. They spent Christmas with him. Father Hernando,
who runs a nearby church, found the men temporary volunteer work and put
some of them up in a convent in Palmdale.
Seafarers Center has been arranging for payments to the men’s families,
who depend on them for support. The nondenominational Center has a yard
with a basketball court and facilities for table tennis, billiards, and
karaoke. There is also a chapel where the men say they go to pray for a
is a classic example of abuses at sea that never surface because seafarers
fear retribution or loss of their jobs. For their pains, the men of the
Katerina could easily be blacklisted by Philippine manning agents. In
fact, reports from home say they already have been. The good news is that
a Department of Justice anti-pollution program permits financial payments
to whistle blowers; the payments are often derived from fines against
vessel operators. Cooperative witnesses got around $1.2 million in a
recent case. That's a lot of money for crew members who think $1,500 a
month is excellent pay.
encourage future crews to come forward? Not likely, said the folks at the
Seafarers Center. "They'll say 'we're not going to tell; they'll put us in
shackles,'" said Mary Bickey. "What kind of incentive is that?"
is whether there is a legislative answer that would protect whistle
blowers while they await trial and provide a safety net against
retaliation from management. But the shipping industry is a global
business and it takes years to change centuries-old customs and rules. The
international maritime organizations work mightily to ban rogue ships from
the seas but all too many ship operators put maximum profit before human
rights. Without increased vigilance they will continue to get away with
Another version of this article appeared in the January issue of the
Numast Telegraph in London. (See