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Tangled in steel and no way out: How Indian crew is faring in Baltimore

22 sailors find themselves not only trapped in ship but also in an unexpected spotlight

Eduardo Medina Baltimore Published 01.04.24, 05:45 AM
The Dali enmeshed in steel after the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse in Baltimore.

The Dali enmeshed in steel after the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse in Baltimore. Reuters picture.

Even from miles away, the destruction of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore is a jarring visual: Chunks of steel jut above the water like metallic icebergs. Twisted grey beams protrude in crooked positions. From a park near Fort McHenry, visitors can see the giant cargo ship that struck the bridge and remains lodged in the wreckage.

Less visible, however, are the 22 crew members from India who have remained on the ship, named the Dali, since the disaster on Tuesday.


Little is publicly known about them other than that they are seafarers who embarked on a journey aboard the 985-foot-long cargo ship that was on its way to Sri Lanka, carrying 4,700 shipping containers, when it lost power and struck the Key Bridge, causing the structure to collapse.

Since the accident, which killed six construction workers, the crew members have found themselves in an unexpected spotlight. While keeping the ship operable, they are answering a deluge of questions from officials investigating the nighttime catastrophe, as the evidence of what occurred lays around them in mangled ruins stretching across the bow and deck.

While officials investigate what could have caused the tragedy, another question has emerged this week: What could the crew members, who have limited access to the outside world, be going through right now?

“They must feel this weight of responsibility that they couldn’t stop it from happening,” said Joshua Messick, the executive director of the Baltimore International Seafarers’ Centre, a religious nonprofit that seeks to protect the rights of mariners.

Even so, officials have praised the crew’s swift mayday message that was transmitted over the radio as the ship lost power on Tuesday. Before the Dali struck the bridge, travelling at a rapid eight knots, the mayday call helped police officers stop traffic from heading onto the bridge, most likely saving many lives, the authorities said.

As the ship remains stuck in the Port of Baltimore, where it may remain for weeks, the lives of the crew members have entered an uncertain phase. But one thing is certain: They will no longer cruise through the sea around South Africa towards their destination in Sri Lanka anytime soon.

But they are not going to imminently dock at the port either, as they must wait for enough debris to be cleared to free the ship and reopen the channel to one of the busiest ports in the US. Yesterday, the governor of Maryland said officials planned to remove the first piece of the debris.

So, for now, crew members are most likely working a gruelling schedule to maintain the ship that is similar to the one they would be if they were out at sea. The difference, though, is that they are in an immobile state as the eyes of the world fixate on them, experts said.

“The captain of the vessel and the crew have a duty to the ship,” said Stephen Frailey, a partner at Pacific Maritime Group, which helps with marine salvage and wreck removal.

According to Chris James, who works for a consulting firm assisting the ship’s management company, Synergy Marine, the crew members have ample supplies of food and water, as well as plenty of fuel to keep the generators going. Indeed, when Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), went onboard the ship this week, she observed the cook cooking. “It smelled very good,” she said.

But there is still no exact timeline for when the ship might be extracted from the wreckage, Mr. James said. Once the NTSB and the Coast Guard finish their investigations, he said, “we’ll look at potentially swapping the crew out and getting them home.”

India, the home country of the crew members, is one of the world’s largest hubs for seafarers, according to John A. Konrad, a ship captain and the chief executive of gCaptain, a maritime and offshore industry news website. Though Indian captains and engineers are paid less than their American counterparts, Konrad said, they make a decent living when they work for three or more months out of the year at sea.

Working on a cargo ship, he said, is a 24-hour ordeal with no weekends off: Every day, decks are checked for maintenance and safety, cooks and cleaners serve the other members, and workers in the engine room keep things on track.

Cargo ship crew members do have some leisurely activities available to them onboard, though, such as video game breaks in cabins, workouts in gyms, table tennis sessions and movie nights. The Dali crew has at least a TV, magazines and books onboard, said Andrew Middleton, who runs Apostleship of the Sea, a program that ministers to sailors coming through the port.

Clistan Joy Sequeira, an Indian seafarer who was not on the Dali but who docked in Baltimore from another cargo ship on Friday, said in an interview that he feared the repercussions that the bridge collapse could have on his industry and his country.

“I’m scared that because this crew is Indian, our international image will suffer,” said Sequeira, 31. “Maybe we lose jobs.”

Some in Baltimore’s port community have had some contact with the Dali crew, albeit brief, through third parties or WhatsApp. Messick said he sent the crew two Wi-Fi hot spots on Friday because they did not have internet onboard.

Middleton said he had been keeping in touch with two crew members, reminding them that “we’re here for them.”

“When I’ve asked how they’re doing, their answers range from ‘good’ to ‘great,’” he said. “So, by their own accounts, they’re OK.”

Messick said he had also sent a care package to the crew through a salvage company helping with operations. In the package were candy, home-baked muffins from a concerned local and thank-you cards from children.

With so many questions still unanswered about the crew members’ next steps, Messick said he was eager to provide them with trauma care and emotional support. On Friday, he wrote a letter to the captain, which was delivered by another vessel.

“We’re here to support you,” it read.

New York Times News Service

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