All Aboard

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

Prompted by the Coast Guard, private docks such as Kinder Morgan performed extensive security retrofits. They erected barbed-wire fences along the waterline to prevent seafarers from entering their property. And they installed closed-circuit TVs, hired more security guards and set up new ways to check the identities of visitors and to report suspicious behavior. "The security protocol that you are seeing out in the port right now is what we're calling the new normalcy," said Coast Guard Captain Richard Kaser, commanding officer for the Port of Houston. "This is now business as usual."

But in the days and months following 9/11, some private docks in Houston went even further than the Coast Guard and created a more restrictive new normalcy of their own. The Oil Tanking, Bay Tank, and Stolthaven terminals began charging ship suppliers between $300 and $500 to make deliveries, merchants said. The Exxon Baytown terminal banned all deliveries to non-Exxon ships and the Kinder Morgan, Intercontinental (ITC) and PetroUnited terminals prohibited deliveries entirely. Merchants who supply ships at these docks must hire a boat, float up to the water side of the ship and hoist up cargo with cranes or pulleys. To provision a vessel this way costs an extra $1,000.

Local ship suppliers said the restrictions slashed sales. "We lose business all the time because it's too expensive or too much of an aggravation to try to do it here," said Andrew Cobb, the owner of World Ship Supply near Minute Maid Park. "Maybe they're going to another port in the United States where they know they have easier access."

Any nationality is welcome.
Daniel Kramer
Any nationality is welcome.
The Houston International Seafarers' Center provides 
sailors with a home away from home -- if they can get 
off their ships.
Daniel Kramer
The Houston International Seafarers' Center provides sailors with a home away from home -- if they can get off their ships.

Cobb is one of the lucky ones. Smaller, self-employed ship suppliers, known as vendors, have fared even worse. About 150 of them hawked everything from cigarettes to Walkmen in the port prior to 9/11. Now there are fewer than 30, said Sammy Licir, the owner of Viking Marine, who supplies wholesale electronics to the vendors.

Licir stood in his empty store on a recent afternoon and gestured to walls of dusty coffee makers and CD players. All of them run on overseas voltages, and many are three years old -- practically glued to the shelves since access to seafarers melted. Business after 9/11 dropped 95 percent, Licir said, and he's flagging on his car and house payments. "You can stay here all day long," he said, "and if you have three customers, I'll give you a high five."

Although the new security measures hurt ship suppliers directly, the economic malaise rippled well beyond the Ship Channel. With mariners confined to their vessels, businesses on Clinton Drive sank faster than potholes appeared along the street's strip centers. Before 9/11, the M/S Express 24 Hour Convenience Store received two dozen seafarers a day. Many would buy enough Doritos and Snickers to last from here to Saudi Arabia. These days the store nets as many sailors in a month. A few doors down, the Wash N Watch Laundry Video Square can only afford to hire attendant Rosie Jimmerson part-time. "Now I don't get anybody off the dock," she said, leaning against a counter and watching Annie. "There are truck drivers' clothes here, and that's it." The retailing chain Family Dollar operates an outpost nearby, and a sign in the window said, "Now Hiring at Most Stores Nationwide." But not here, said a clerk inside.

Despite a slowdown in business, the Hong Kong Nightclub opened every day at 9 a.m. last year and closed at two the next morning. Tran was there all hours, desperately trying to find ways to lure in seamen. Even before 9/11, the crowds of hundreds had dwindled to an average of ten to 15. Tran had netted customers with a free shuttle she ran between the docks and the club. Then the twin towers fell and business dropped to zero. Most docks banned her shuttle. To create new business, Tran offered an all-you-can-eat buffet, but the food languished over Sterno burners, uneaten.

The Hong Kong now opens only in the evening. Tran sat among her club's empty tables on a recent night, produced a pen engraved with "USA" and flipped open the back end, which doubles as a lighter. The pens are free with drinks, and unless they lure new crowds, Tran said, she'll close in a year. As she fiddled with the cigarette lighter, a solitary man nursed a beer at the bar. She pointed to him and said, "My husband."

Pastor Ben Stewart III parked his compact pickup near a chain-link fence inside the ITC terminal recently and stretched a Santa cap over a hard hat. His belly and gray beard jiggled as he loaded a yellow metal wagon with 30 Christmas presents, the freshest batch from a pile of 12,000 delivered by the Houston International Seafarers' Center this season. He wheeled down the dock to the Team Anira oil tanker chortling, "Merry Christmas!" in several languages.

But leaning against a rail of the ship three decks above, chief engineer Alan Morton barely blinked. With his jumpsuit unzipped to his waist, he peered down at Stewart's red fuzzy head, ignored the presents and asked, "Is there a telephone the guys can use?"

"The dock took the phones away," Stewart responded, seeming disappointed he couldn't conjure one out of the yellow sleigh.

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