Coast Guard orders unsafe ship to stay in Baltimore, stranding its crew

14 Filipinos, 3 Romanians and a Greek cook are stranded on a broken down ship in Baltimore's harbor.

A cargo ship and its international crew have been stranded in the Baltimore harbor for 45 days after the vessel had serious engine problems and the Coast Guard deemed it unsafe to sail.

The crew of the MT Newlead Granadino — 14 Filipinos, three Romanians and a Greek cook — needed to drink water that had condensed on the ship's air conditioner and fish over the side to supplement waning rations before a relief effort began, according to an organization that represents sailors.

Barbara Shipley, an inspector with the International Transportation Workers Federation, said NewLead Holdings Ltd., the Greek company that owns the ship, is in financial distress and unable to pay for the $1 million or more in repairs needed to make the ship seaworthy.

"They were unable to care for the vessel," Shipley said. "They didn't have the money to send provisions to the vessel."

Elisa Gerouki, a spokeswoman for NewLead, said the ship's breakdown has left the company facing unexpected costs, but said the firm remains in control of the situation. NewLead is working with a French bank that holds a mortgage on the ship to reach a resolution, she said.

"The management of the company took the decision to stop the vessel from continuing trading in order to ensure the safety of the crew on board," Gerouki said in a statement. "NewLead's management decision was taken in order to protect life and well-being of the crew on board the vessel which is of primary and utmost importance to the company."

The problems began when the 368-foot asphalt tanker had a serious engine failure near Baltimore. The Coast Guard inspected the ship Sept. 20 and determined the Newlead Granadino had safety violations and ordered it detained, said Petty Officer Barry Bena, a Coast Guard spokesman.

The vessel has been anchored in the Patapsco River, west of the Key Bridge.

NewLead has faced other problems in recent months. Its CEO resigned in late October due to a "strictly personal legal matter," the company announced, and another one of its ships was auctioned off in Savannah, Ga., in August. U.S. marshals had detained that ship in April after some of NewLead's creditors sued in federal court over unpaid debts. The creditors described NewLead in their lawsuit as "little more than a hollow shell."

NewLead's lawyers denied the allegations in court, but a judge ordered the ship sold.

In that case, too, the ship's crew was left stranded, the ship at anchor off the Georgia coast, but they were paid and fed by the creditors in the case.

Shipley said it's not uncommon for sailors to get caught in the middle of financial disputes involving shipping companies.

"We deal with this quite often," she said. "More often than we would like."

In the 1990s, a Yugoslavian ship, the Durmitor, was stuck in Baltimore for five years, caught up in the politics surrounding the war in Bosnia. The ship's owner rotated in crews who spent long, boring stretches aboard.

The Newlead Granadino's crew, who declined to be interviewed, cannot leave the ship. Some of them don't have visas, and Enrico Esopa, an official with the International Transportation Workers Federation, said if the crew were to leave, they would give up any hope of getting back wages they are still owed.

"If they leave the vessel just to go home, they just leave themselves up in the air without being paid," Esopa said.

Gerouki said NewLead still intends to pay the crew.

"We completely understand the crew's disappointment as a result of the deferment of the payment of their wages," she said.

For now, charities and volunteers have been helping keep the sailors fed. The Seafarers International Union and the Baltimore International Seafarers Center are collecting donations to support the crew.

Aid also has come from more unusual quarters. After hearing about the problems on the news, the crew from the themed harbor tour company Urban Pirates gathered supplies and sailed out to the Newlead Granadino on their own ship, the Fearless.

"They were very, very, very happy to see us," said Kyle Dembowski, a manager at Urban Pirates. "We're rolling up in a pirate ship; it's kind of an odd thing."

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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