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Baltimore bridge: Attorneys reach deal that could allow some Dali crew members to fly home




CNN
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After 12 weeks stuck aboard a cargo ship that lost power and crushed a famed Baltimore bridge, some of the vessel’s 21 crew members could soon return to their families halfway around the world.

Attorneys for the City of Baltimore and the owner and manager of the Dali cargo ship reached a deal late Wednesday that could allow eight of the crew members to fly home as early as Thursday, according to documents filed this week in Maryland’s US District Court.

The 20 Indians and one Sri Lankan on board have been stuck on the ship since March 26, when the mammoth vessel lost propulsion, veered off course and destroyed the Francis Scott Key Bridge, killing six construction workers.

Crew members haven’t been able to get off the ship for a variety of reasons. While none of the crew have been charged in connection with the disaster, investigations are underway to determine who might be responsible for the catastrophe. And Baltimore’s mayor has announced legal action, vowing to “hold the wrongdoers responsible.”

On Tuesday, attorneys representing the city and a bridge inspector who was nearly killed in the crash filed motions asking the court to intervene after they learned some crew members might fly home this week – before the attorneys had a chance to depose them.

“The crew consists entirely of foreign nationals who, of course, have critical knowledge and information about the events giving rise to this litigation,” Adam Levitt, an attorney representing the city, wrote in Tuesday’s emergency hearing request. “If they are permitted to leave the United States, Claimants may never have the opportunity to question or depose them.”

As of Wednesday evening, a hearing on the matter still was scheduled for Thursday.

The request came after Levitt and other counsel received an email from William Bennett, an attorney representing ship owner Grace Ocean and ship manager Synergy Marine.

The email, which was attached as an exhibit in Tuesday’s emergency court filings, said eight crew members were expected to fly home as early as this week.

“Our clients are in the process of arranging for replacement crew for the DALI,” wrote William Bennett, one of the attorneys representing the ship’s owner, Grace Ocean, and manager, Synergy Marine. “We have been advised that the U.S. Coast Guard will permit certain crew members to return to their home countries but has requested that other crew members remain in the United States.”

Those seafarers “will be transported directly from the Vessel to the airport prior to its departure from Baltimore (likely on or about June 20th),” Bennett wrote Tuesday morning.

Bennett’s email identifies the eight eligible crew members, which include a cook, a fitter and an oiler. “All of these crew members have been interviewed by DOJ and DOJ does not object to their departure from the United States,” Bennett wrote.

CNN has reached out to the Coast Guard and the Department of Justice for comment.

In response to Tuesday’s motions, US District Court Judge James Bredar ordered an emergency hearing for Thursday morning to hear from attorneys for each side of the issue.

But late Wednesday, attorneys for the ship’s owner and manager as well as the city of Baltimore reached a deal on terms for the eight crew members’ depositions, according to a new court filing.

As part of the deal, those crew members will not need to stay in Baltimore. Their depositions “will be taken in London or elsewhere by written agreement of all parties to the Litigation,” according to an exhibit attached to Wednesday’s court filing.

Those depositions will take place “no sooner than November 2024,” the document states.

In addition to making those seafarers available for depositions, Grace Ocean and Synergy Marine must provide documents including personnel files, employment contracts and training files, according Wednesday’s court filing.

“We agree to (the) conditions mentioned,” Bennett wrote in an email attached in the court filing.

With the agreement in place, “the City of Baltimore is satisfied that the Parties no longer require the Court’s intervention to resolve the dispute,” Levitt wrote in Wednesday’s court filing. As a result, he said, the city asked to withdraw its request for an emergency status hearing.

The judge responded in an order Wednesday evening, saying the hearing would proceed “because the agreement has not yet been explicitly endorsed by all parties,” though he noted the deal “strikes the Court as a sensible resolution to this issue.”

Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun/TNS/Getty Images

Salvage crews are seen removing debris from the Francis Scott Key Bridge from the container ship Dali on June 18, 2024.

No civil lawsuits can get underway because of a pending request by the ship’s owner and manager to limit their financial liability, said Jason Foster, an attorney representing the bridge inspector whom he said narrowly escaped and lost six friends in the tragedy.

Six days after the catastrophe, Grace Ocean and Synergy Marine filed a petition in federal court asking for a $43.6 million cap on potential liability payouts.

But a decision on that request probably won’t happen anytime soon, since potential claimants have until September 24 to come forward, Foster told CNN Wednesday afternoon.

And due to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Foster and other attorneys weren’t able depose the crew members until all of the potential claimants have come forward – in other words, possibly September or later.

But with the new agreement Wednesday night, the eight crew members would be able to leave the country before they’re deposed.

Despite months-long separation from their families and uncertainty about their fate, the seafarers are in good spirits, said Darrell Wilson, a spokesperson for the crew’s employer, Synergy Marine.

He said the company “looks after them on a daily basis,” helping make sure they have supplies they need. And local seafarers’ organizations have “been tremendous in helping to look after the crew,” Wilson told CNN on Wednesday.

Singapore Maritime Officers’ Union/Singapore Organisation of Seamen/ITF

From left: Bro Chen Chuanyi, executive secretary of the Singapore Organisation of Seamen, and Gwee Guo Duan, assistant general secretary of the Singapore Maritime Officers’ Union, speak with seamen aboard the Dali on April 24, four weeks ater the cargo ship crashed into Baltimore’s Key Bridge.

The seamen have had pizza and catered foods delivered as well as access to cricket matches broadcast from their home countries – “you know, small touches that mean a lot to the crew,” Wilson said.

But it’s still unclear exactly when the eight crew members – and the rest of their colleagues – will be able to leave. CNN has reached out the Singapore-based unions representing the seafarers for comment.

CNN’s Mary Kay Mallonee and Jeff Winter contributed to this report.



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