All Aboard

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.

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.

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."

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.

"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."

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.

Last year Patout grew increasingly indignant over the restrictions at the docks, until finally he couldn't tolerate them anymore and organized a meeting to incite change. For two hours, terminal operators, shipping agents, vendors, and Coast Guard and immigration officials hammered out ways to balance security with the interests of merchants and mariners. The meeting prompted important concessions. "It kind of brought to a head everybody discussing the same topic," Patout said, "and I think the continuation by the Coast Guard in their monthly meeting on port security has led to a lot of changes."

But policies at docks like Kinder Morgan scarcely budged. "Kinder Morgan is really one of the bad guys here," he said. "It's pure harassment. There is no reason to treat [mariners] this way."

Written statements supplied by Kinder Morgan failed to address specific questions posed by the Houston Press about the rationale for the dock's policies.

"The Pasadena/Galena Park complex is part of the nation's energy infrastructure, so we take security very seriously," a statement said. "Immediately following 9/11, Kinder Morgan implemented the security procedures that are currently in place, which are designed to protect the facility, our employees and the public."

Yet how well the existing security measures work remains an open question. The familiar two-by-four at Kinder Morgan's front gate would scarcely slow a determined Honda Civic. Chain-link fences surrounding the property could be clipped in a matter of minutes with wire cutters. And a terrorist with a slingshot could stand in the middle of Clinton Drive and lob grenades at dozens of massive canisters filled with gas products.

Kaser said security at the docks is "not perfect," but defended Kinder Morgan. "While you may be seeing a two-by-four there," he said, "what you are not seeing is a closed-circuit TV or other measures that may be in place." The docks submitted new security plans to the Coast Guard in December, and he said they should address remaining security holes.

If the new plans are to bring security up to snuff, they may have a long way to go. A nationwide investigation conducted by the news program 60 Minutes recently found security at chemical facilities in Houston and other major cities woefully inadequate. "[I]n the center of Houston, where a terrorist attack might affect three million people, it looked like an intruder could simply walk right in," the report said.

A bill proposed six weeks after 9/11 by Senator Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) would have put the federal government in charge of chemical plant security. The bill would have required the companies to stockpile fewer chemicals on-site and employ safer technologies, but it was defeated by lobbying from the $450 billion chemical industry.

Many merchants at the port said no amount of security will stymie a determined saboteur.

"If I were a terrorist, I don't think that would be that difficult a job," said Cobb of World Ship Supply. "I'd get my wetsuit and my little underwater propelled surfboard or whatever, and I don't know how to get dynamite -- but they do -- and I'd go blow something up. Don't get me wrong: That's not my profession. But it just doesn't seem like it would be that hard to do something terrible like that."

Patout founded the Seafarers' Center in 1968 to provide sailors a refuge from the streets. Mariners were often beaten and robbed because they had nowhere to go and could never stay in port long enough to file charges and get to court. The center offered them a safe drinking hole, a chapel and even basketball courts and a swimming pool. More than 100 seamen once walked from the docks to the complex every night.

These days fear of crime at the port has faded; the greatest threats to seafarers are legal, and the criminals have been replaced with security guards and immigration agents. The center cut back on some services, such as sermons aboard ships, and substituted shuttles to fill its de facto role as the port's taxi service. But the ultimate antidote to the woes of the average sailor remains much the same: a friendly handshake and an update from God.

Last month, Father Stewart climbed the metal stairs welded into the side of the petroleum tanker Bow Power and crossed a catwalk over orange tubes resembling a drunken pipe organ. He greeted the chief mate in the navigation room, where a poster in Greek showed a seaman at the wheel of a ship, with Jesus behind him, His hand on his shoulder, guiding him into the distance.

A young mariner entered the cabin in an oily jumpsuit and asked Stewart if he had brought any phone cards. Stewart said he hadn't bothered to carry them because the dock had removed the phones. Crestfallen, the worker skulked out the door.

But as Stewart prepared to disembark, the young man lingered by the gangway. Stewart had often seen it before: Home was months and thousands of cramped miles away. Placing a hand on the sailor's shoulder, he recited a psalm: "…May you experience the Lord's love even when separated from Him and all you know…"

Then he descended to the dock and climbed into his pickup. A mile past the guardhouse he met the interstate and joined a sea of cars. Here too, white canisters of chemicals line the roadway, and lonely strangers sail past them, crossing their fingers and mumbling psalms.

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