All Aboard

Since 9/11, tanker sailors are having a tough time making it to dry land in Houston

Ted McCormick, able-bodied seaman, has traveled the world on tankers. Used to be, when he'd dock in the Port of Houston, he'd walk off the ship, stroll past a chain-link fence and hoof it straight to the local post office, newsstand and burger joint.

But a few months ago, while the Kinder Morgan refinery pumped petrol into McCormick's gasoline tanker in the Houston port, McCormick stayed put. Even though he had leave time, he was trapped on board.

Since 9/11, no one was letting him go anywhere -- certainly not the Kinder Morgan guards abiding by a new company rule requiring seafarers to give 24-hour notice before stepping ashore. The guards didn't care that McCormick had to catch a plane home to Baltimore. So he lied and told them a relative had died.

Father Rivers Patout of the Houston International 
Seafarers' Center says oil terminals like Kinder 
Morgan are shutting their gangways to sailors.
Daniel Kramer
Father Rivers Patout of the Houston International Seafarers' Center says oil terminals like Kinder Morgan are shutting their gangways to sailors.
At Harbor Lights Night Club, hundreds of revelers once 
packed the house to hear some of the best 
country-western music in town. Now tables are empty.
Daniel Kramer
At Harbor Lights Night Club, hundreds of revelers once packed the house to hear some of the best country-western music in town. Now tables are empty.

They grudgingly lifted the gate.

Tighter port security imposed post- 9/11 has cramped the lives of seafarers nationwide. Some sailors now wait so long for renewed seamen's passes that they must stop work and return home. More stringent visa restrictions leave many foreign sailors stranded aboard their ships for months off U.S. shores. And ship agents who employ seafarers from countries such as Egypt or Indonesia must hire gunmen who will shoot them if they run down the gangplank.

But unlike oil docks in many other parts of the country, private Houston terminals like Kinder Morgan have made hard times for seafarers even worse. They've prevented sailors from calling their families, denied them access to shore and made it harder to provision ships. Kinder Morgan now requires sailors to leave its facility in expensive courier cabs or in the company of Christian ministers, who are often unavailable at a moment's notice.

"We can get you out of jail," Father Rivers Patout tells seafarers, "but you have to wait here until the chaplain unlocks your lock."

The added restrictions have helped ravage the local economies of Houston port communities such as Barber's Cut and Galena Park, where businesses depend on seafarers. And they've alienated sailors, the very people who control floating bombs. But the most galling part to critics is how the tight rules seem irrelevant. McCormick laughed when his car pulled up to the gate of the Kinder Morgan plant recently.

He pointed to the only barrier between the road and enough gasoline to blow up southeast Houston: a wooden two-by-four.


Hoa Tran opened a small club a short drive from the gates of Kinder Morgan decades ago with a nest egg from Shanghai and a hunch she'd found a hot spot. She installed a chubby Buddha by the door, hired a cadre of sexy Asian waitresses and hoisted a neon-framed sign that said, "Hong Kong Restaurant Seamen Nightclub." In a short time, hundreds of Chinese, Norwegians and Filipinos were gyrating on the dance floor nightly well past 2 a.m.

The year was 1977, and business in Galena Park was booming. An incessant queue of 300 tractor-trailers snaked out of the port past gas stations and burger joints and a mile down McCarty Street. Two souvenir shops sold T-shirts and Texas ashtrays to crowds of sailors with time and cash to burn. Every night, the Harbor Lights Night Club offered some of the best live country-western music in town. Ship captains mingled with visitors like Yogi Berra, Howard Hughes and Elvis. "When you go to Westheimer now, the Port of Houston used to be like that," says club owner John Kontominas. "And they changed it."

Galena Park began to fall apart in the early 1980s, when a global revolution in shipping technology came to Houston. Traditionally, port workers had required up to a week to load and unload cargo ships. Sailors lounged for days in port town bars, restaurants and Laundromats. Containerization put an end to that. Workers packed goods into 20- or 40-foot metal shipping containers and hoisted them onto vessels with giant cranes. Ships often pulled in and out on the same day. The technology slashed the dockside labor force and, combined with advances in computer-aided navigation, cut crews on most ships in half. The souvenir shops closed. Other businesses such as the Hong Kong and Harbor Lights weathered the storm.

The town limped forward slowly over the next 20 years on the crutch of the port's increasing global trade. By 1996, Houston handled more foreign ship tonnage than any other port in the country. But when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 struck, business plummeted. Almost all oil tanking terminals closed. For several weeks, most petroleum docks confined arriving seafarers to their ships, and some, like Kinder Morgan, didn't open gangways for months. New security concerns ripped efficiency to shreds.

The Coast Guard responded to the attacks with a flurry of new measures. It bumped the time by which the ships were required to notify authorities of their arrival from 24 hours to 96 hours prior to entering the port. Six security zones restricted all but commercial vessels. Ten new staff members joined the local force, and armed officers boarded all vessels outside the Ship Channel and accompanied potentially dangerous ships to port. The Coast Guard also created a 100-person Marine Safety Security Team in Galveston to respond to floating terrorists and other threats.

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