At least some of Dali crew members will go home after months stuck on ship that hit Baltimore bridge

Crew cleared to leave after agreement is reached allowing lawyers to question them as part of investigations into the incident

Namita Singh
Friday 21 June 2024 07:07 BST
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Related: First ships pass through Baltimore bridge after collapse

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Eight crew members of the MV Dali can finally head home after being stuck on the cargo ship for three months following its deadly collision with Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge.

The crew were cleared to leave after an agreement was reached allowing lawyers to question them as part of investigations into the incident in which six Latino immigrant construction workers were killed. They were working an overnight shift to fill potholes on the bridge.

None of the 21 crew members, predominantly Indians, have been able to leave since their ship lost power and crashed into one of the bridge’s supporting columns on 26 March.

The wreckage of the fallen bridge also led to the blocking of maritime traffic into the harbor. It was fully reopened to its original depth and width earlier this month after massive clean up efforts, with workers removing an estimated 50,000 tons of steel and concrete from the Patapsco river.

While the FBI has launched a criminal investigation into the matter, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating the cause of the power outage.

The ongoing civil litigation began with a petition from the ship’s owner and manager, two Singapore-based companies, seeking to limit their legal liability for the deadly disaster.

According to the emails included in Tuesday’s court filings, the eight crew members scheduled to return home have already been interviewed by Department of Justice investigators who do not object to their departure. The crew members were flying out of Baltimore “likely on or about” Thursday, an attorney for the ship’s owner and manager wrote.

Department of Justice attorneys leave the Edward A. Garmatz United States District Courthouse in Baltimore, Thursday, 20 June 2024
Department of Justice attorneys leave the Edward A. Garmatz United States District Courthouse in Baltimore, Thursday, 20 June 2024 (AP)

Under the agreement, which was confirmed by US District Judge James K Bredar during a hearing on Thursday, the crew can return home but must be available for depositions.

Attorneys had asked the judge Tuesday to prevent the roughly two dozen total crew members – all hailing from India or Sri Lanka – from leaving.

In the court filings, attorneys representing the city of Baltimore said the men should remain in the US so they can be deposed in ongoing civil litigation to decide who is responsible for costs and damages resulting from the bridge collapse.

“The crew consists entirely of foreign nationals who, of course, have critical knowledge and information about the events giving rise to this litigation,” the attorneys wrote. “If they are permitted to leave the United States, Claimants may never have the opportunity to question or depose them.”

Attorney William H “Billy” Murphy Jr, representing one of the claimants said, "we were concerned that the men would be spirited away and never be seen again", reported NBC affiliate WBALTV.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, center, speaks during a news conference to mark the full reopening of the Port of Baltimore after the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in March, Wednesday, 12 June 2024
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, center, speaks during a news conference to mark the full reopening of the Port of Baltimore after the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in March, Wednesday, 12 June 2024 (AP)

“Everybody is paying close attention to the details so that we can unravel all aspects of this and come up with a just result,” Mr Murphy said.

Seven attorneys represented the federal government at the hearing. Two lawyers who represented the Dali’s owner ignored questions as they left the courthouse.

Lawrence B Brennan, a longtime admiralty lawyer based in New Jersey, said these kinds of legal battles are not uncommon or even unprecedented.

“It’s going to get complicated for a while,” said Mr Brennan, who previously worked for the Justice Department and is an adjunct law professor at Fordham University. “And I don’t think anything is going to get resolved in the next few weeks or months, unless somebody decides it’s in their best interest to pay off the case.”

Mr Brennan said it’s important to complete the depositions soon to avoid stalling the case. “We don’t want to be talking these same issues two to three to four years from now,” he said.

But he warned it can be hard to make witnesses comply with such an agreement once they have leave the US. “The promise to come back is hard to enforce,” Mr Brennan said. “So, if it isn’t enforced, then the court has to decide what the consequences are. And usually that is punishment for the party who broke the agreement.”

Darrell Wilson, a spokesperson for the ship’s owner, said on Tuesday evening that some crew members were scheduled to leave but he couldn’t say when, and that others would remain to assist with the investigation. He also said he wasn’t sure when the ship would leave Baltimore for Norfolk, Virginia, where it will receive extensive repairs.

Andrew Middleton, who runs Apostleship of Sea – a programme that ministers to ships coming through Baltimore – told BBC that there were “mixed emotions” among sailors as “the ones that get to go home are happy, relieved", he said.

"But the ones that are staying are wondering when they will get to go home too. That’s added to the mental strain."

Additional reporting by agencies

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