After seven weeks in captivity, the crew of the Aqua Quest may be coming home.
Since May 5, the six-member crew of a Tarpon Springs marine salvage boat has been jailed in Honduras, accused of smuggling arms into that Central American country. They have insisted they had a handful of guns on board only for protection against piracy in international waters.
A number of American lawmakers have been working to free the men, including Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor.
Bilirakis said Monday afternoon that U.S. embassy officials in Honduras had informed him that the crew would be released soon.
"We got word that there was an order signed to release the detainees. It came from the capital," Bilirakis said. "But this local judge who has jurisdiction is still out due to a death in the family."
It was unclear exactly when the crew would be released, the congressman said, but "all signs are good."
The ship's captain is Tarpon Springs resident Robert Mayne, 60. Four crew members live in Tarpon: first mate James Kelly "Boo Boo" Garrett, 53, and diver/deck hands Devon Butler, 26, Nick Cook, 31, and Steve Matanich, 34. Also on the crew is Mayne's brother Michael Mayne, 57, of Cape Cod, Mass.
Aqua Quest International, a Tarpon Springs company, typically salvages precious cargo from shipwrecks. This time, its job was to recover valuable mahogany logs from a river bed in cooperation with the rural Honduran town of Ahuas. The company and the town were to split the profits.
When the crew arrived in Honduras, they say they notified maritime authorities that they had weapons on board. But after the 65-foot vessel pulled into port, authorities raided the boat and arrested the crew.
Congressmen and the U.S. State Department have been putting diplomatic pressure on Honduras to free the men. State Department officials recently met with the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, mostly to discuss the recent influx of Central American children traveling to the U.S. border. But the Aqua Quest case reportedly came up.
Relatives of the jailed men are cautiously hopeful that their ordeal is near an end.
"We're holding off on doing cartwheels until they're actually out of there," said Stephen Mayne, Aqua Quest's chief operating officer and brother of two of the jailed men. "Regardless of what today holds, we think we're in the home stretch."
Crewman Steve Matanich's fiancee, Sarah Montgomery of Tarpon Springs, is trying to reassure the couple's 5-year-old son, Dylan. Every day, she drives over to the house that crew members Butler and Cook share so she can feed their dog.
"I'm hoping he calls and say they're being released," Montgomery said. "We're waiting to hear if the federal judge's order overrules the local judge."
Although they all live in Tarpon now, Matanich is originally from Illinois, Butler is from Pennsylvania, and Cook and Garrett are from Georgia. Robert Mayne and a couple of his brothers moved from Cape Cod to Tarpon Springs about 25 years ago to do sponge diving and other work.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBrassfield.