All Aboard

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

"It's getting worse," Morton said. "We're prisoners now. Prisoners without telephones."

ITC, Kinder Morgan and other terminals removed the pay phones from their docks after 9/11. The decision enraged seafarers like Morton, who now speaks with his wife only 20 percent as much as he did before 9/11. "A phone is the most important thing in a seaman's life," he yelled from his perch, "and they've taken it away. It's disgraceful."

Morton left Houston for Panama, on his way to Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, then Europe, and finally back to the East Coast, where he would head south toward the Gulf of Mexico. He dreaded returning to the United States. At the ITC terminal, for example, he used to leave via taxi, but he now must arrange transport with the Seafarers' Center. "It's more difficult to get ashore here than it is in Communist China," he said. "They are picking on the wrong ones. We just want to make a living."

Pastor Ben Stewart III serves up drinks and a hearty 
meal for seafarers separated from their families on 
Courtesy Pastor Ben Stewart
Pastor Ben Stewart III serves up drinks and a hearty meal for seafarers separated from their families on Christmas.
There is something for everyone at the Seafarers' 
Daniel Kramer
There is something for everyone at the Seafarers' Center...

A study conducted last year at 12 major U.S. ports found a higher percentage of ships had crews detained on board in Houston than in any other city. The Center for Seafarers' Rights visited ships in the port over a ten-day period last February and found more than half of them carried seafarers who had been restricted from shore. A follow-up study in October was incomplete because some docks denied surveyors access.

Many of the sailors had been unable to apply for visas, a common problem since 9/11. Seafarers such as John Kiel, a tattooed British officer aboard the Atlantic Challenger, once came and went freely on U.S. shores. Immigration officials would board Kiel's ship and grant him a temporary visa on the spot. But post-9/11, the federal government requires mariners to apply for their visas overseas, months in advance. So when the Atlantic Challenger made an unplanned stop in Houston last month for emergency repairs, Kiel, who couldn't apply for a visa in advance, was stuck on the ship for a week. "As seamen, we are most definitely alienated," he said. "In most other ports, we are allowed free passage."

But even seafarers who carry visas often can't get ashore when they stop in Houston's private oil docks. For example, the Kinder Morgan terminal locked sailors on their ships during the Super Bowl, citing heightened terrorism concerns, even though the Coast Guard said no new threats existed. Father Patout of the Seafarers' Center discovered the locked gangways when he tried to deliver Super Bowl party invitations to sailors aboard the ITB New York. "I couldn't even get in to tell them to call us," he said. "What if there was a fire on the ship in the docks? They would be trapped like rats."

Many workers and businesses in the port said the detentions pose other serious risks. Patricia Clark is an emergency response manager for Skaugen Petro Trans Inc., which employs about 250 seafarers aboard ships that off-load oil from tankers near the port. "The people we need to be most aware and vigilant are the seafarers on the ships," she said, "and if you've got them pissed off, they're not going to give a damn. It's all tied together. Those people you want to look out for you are going, 'Well, why the fuck should I be looking out for them? They won't even let me go to Wal-Mart.' "

Port commander Kaser suggested better treatment of seafarers would bolster security. He supports streamlining visa requirements for mariners and loosening some of the restrictions imposed by the private docks. "Especially when you look at mariners that are part of our coalition forces," he said, "there's many gains to be made by building the trust, and right now we don't have that. It's going to be a growing process."

A federal law enacted recently grants Kaser legal authority to require the private docks to provide seafarers with basic rights. The Maritime Transportation and Security Act of 2002 says ship terminals must "ensure coordination of shore leave for ship personnel or crew change-out, as well as access through the facility for visitors to the vessel (including representatives of seafarers' welfare and labor organizations)…"

What the act doesn't say is how the terminals must provide access. And this leaves Kaser powerless to enforce the spirit of the law. "In other words, a vessel can come in, and a facility can say, 'We're going to provide you access, but it's going to cost you $500,' " he said. "It's not quite fair, but they meet the minimum because they're making some provision to get off the vessel."

But at least two docks at the port continue to openly violate the law on a regular basis. According to the Seafarers' Center, the Sunoco dock in Deer Park refuses to allow seafarers to leave vessels under any arrangements. And the Exxon Baytown terminal denies the center access to moored ships, even though the pastors qualify as "representatives of seafarers' welfare." Exxon and Sunoco failed to respond to requests for interviews.

Father Rivers Patout sat in his office in the Houston Seafarers' Center recently and delivered an impromptu sermon on morality in the world of shipping. Though sailors like to cuss, visit strip clubs and shoot vodka, he doesn't judge them. With his jolly red suspenders and propensity to chuckle, he looks like he rarely judges anybody. But exploit the meek and downtrodden, and Patout puts on his hard hat.

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