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Legal battle leaves crew stuck on ship

(ran ET edition of TAMPA TODAY)

A four-month legal battle has stranded 10 merchant sailors aboard their Honduran freighter. They're unable to get off because they have no immigration papers and unable to go home because they have no money.

The crew is living off a dwindling supply of canned food. Sixty pounds of chicken rotted when the vessel's refrigeration broke down. In addition, the ship's emergency generator is broken. So is the radar. The emergency lights do not work.

"The conditions on board are very poor," Coast Guard Petty Officer Ron Bradley said.

Crew members are so stressed they are suffering from depression, anxiety, guilt and insomnia, said Francisco Vazquez, the ship's captain. Some rarely speak. One talks to himself and has climbed the ship's crane several times.

"It's very frustrating," said Alberto Collazo, 40, the ship's chief engineer. "How are you going to get home without any money? It's a nightmare. It's not just us who are suffering. Our families are not receiving any money."

The Inagua Tania was seized in the port by federal authorities on March 1 because of a legal dispute between the ship's owner and two marine companies with legal claims against the vessel.

The freighter's Panamanian owner, Zuki-Teria Navigation, owed $175,000 for fuel and other services to Isbrandtsen Marine Services, a Connecticut firm. Another $480,000 was owed to Florida Transportation Services, a Port Everglades company.

The case was assigned to U.

S. District Judge William Zloch, who ordered the ship sold after Zuki-Teria failed to meet its financial obligations. To protect its claim, Isbrandtsen bought the ship at auction in May for $300,000.

Hans Isbrandtsen, Isbrandtsen's president, said the bill for maintaining the ship since March has reached $200,000. He wants Florida Transportation to pay its share of those costs, but the firms have not been able to reach a settlement.

That has led to the four-month wait for the crew members, who under U. S. admiralty law are considered wards of the court, said Jeffrey Dahl, a Miami attorney representing the seamen in their separate claim for back wages.

The seamen hail from Honduras, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Canada and Guyana. They spend most of their days doing ship maintenance as the freighter bobs 1{ miles offshore.

In addition to their own predicament, many are worried that their families are suffering worse than they for a lack of money.

"Nobody wants to pay us," said Vazquez, the captain and a resident of Veracruz, Mexico. "We are caught in the middle."

"Nobody's responsible for us, but we're responsible for the ship," said Joel Alexander Keisier, 44, a first engineer from Guyana. "Nobody wants to treat us like human beings. It's high-tech slavery."

Tensions on board peaked Monday night, when a guard on the ship was chased by a seaman wielding a knife. No one was injured.

James Tassone, the chief deputy U.S. marshal in South Florida, said ships are often seized for financial reasons. He said, however, that it's unusual for a case to linger so long and for the fate of the crew to be left in legal limbo.

William Cassidy, a Miami lawyer representing Zuki-Teria, which plans to challenge the court-ordered sale of the ship, said an attempt was made to mediate the case last week.

Still, no one can say when it will be settled.