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Port may soon be "Empress'-free

For months, city officials have watched expectantly, hoping that one day the Imperial Empress would leave the Port of St. Petersburg as promised.

The 326-foot ship was supposed to ship out Saturday as part of a settlement between the city and the ship's owners. That didn't happen.

But city officials remain hopeful. Workers are on deck, apparently preparing the ship to leave, said port director David Metz. The ship's owners sent the city a fax Monday, showing a written estimate from a South Florida company prepared to move the Empress this week.

A representative from Gimrock Maritime Inc. of Hialeah Gardens said he never received word that his company was being hired to tug the ship out of port. But Michael Zapetis Jr. said the Gimrock Odyssey is available to tow the Imperial Empress out of port Thursday.

City officials are counting on that fax from the ship's owners as proof that the Empress will finally be gone soon.

"My understanding is there's lots of activity on the ship getting it ready," said Senior Assistant City Attorney Richard Badgley, who met with the owners several weeks ago.

In October, the City Council settled a federal case against the company that owns the Empress. As part of the deal, Etna Shipping Ltd., agreed to move the ship before Oct. 22 and pay $146,515 for docking and rent.

The company has paid the $146,000. But the company has not moved the ship or paid an additional $7,000 in fees. Badgley said a payment schedule has been arranged.

The ship was not moved last year because dry dock space was not available in Tampa, the owners told city officials. The owners told city administrators the ship wasn't moved Saturday because the original tow company had mechanical problems.

Gimrock, the replacement tow company, estimates that it will cost $36,000 to move the Empress. The owners, Norman and Espen Tandberg, who are now doing business as Wyoming Pass Inc., did not return a phone message left at their office.