Crew Appreciates Union’s Successful Effort to End Ordeal in Venezuela
Click HERE for photos aboard the Ocean Atlas.
A week after their tense detention ended in Venezuela, SIU members aboard the heavy-lift ship Ocean Atlas voiced two main sentiments shortly after safely arriving in Houston.
First, they were glad the ordeal was finished. Second, they sincerely appreciated the crucial support of their union – including regular communications to the ship and virtually round-the-clock efforts to help secure its release.
“I’m very grateful to everybody that pulled us through and got it worked out,” Recertified Bosun David Hetrick told a reporter for the Seafarers LOG aboard the ship on Sept. 22. “It could have been terrible for all 15 of us.”
Operated by Crowley for Intermarine, the Ocean Atlas was detained in Maracaibo from Aug. 29-Sept. 14. In a complicated saga that essentially boiled down to an administrative mistake involving a local customs agent, the SIU crew and AMO officers for a time thought they might end up in jail, even though neither they nor the companies had done anything wrong.
But, as the unions, companies and others worked feverishly to clear up any misunderstandings and red tape, vessel master Capt. Jeff Raider went ashore with local authorities, which helped allow the other mariners to stay on the ship. (Hetrick and others were quick to thank the captain for his professionalism and selflessness.) The vessel finally sailed again on Sept. 14, making a stop in the Dominican Republic before docking in Houston, where SIU Vice President Gulf Coast Dean Corgey and SIU Houston Port Agent Mike Russo boarded the ship.
SIU Secretary-Treasurer David Heindel and SIU Counsel Leslie Tarantola led the union’s efforts, backed by other headquarters officials. “But this was a group effort all the way, not just within our union but also including the U.S. State Department, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and many others whom we have publicly acknowledged,” Heindel stated. “And we couldn’t have been successful without the members remaining levelheaded and patient. They deserve tremendous credit.”
In a public statement issued once the vessel sailed from Venezuela, the SIU pointed out, “Understandably, the media reports concerning the Ocean Atlas at times have missed the mark on certain details. Venezuelan officials acted appropriately, based on information sent from Colombia regarding a missed inspection of the vessel’s cargo. Venezuelan law enforcement authorities, as part of their ongoing commitment to assist other nations in trying to curtail the movement and distribution of illegal drugs, investigated a report made by Colombian authorities that the ship could be carrying narcotics.
“The search confirmed that the ship was not carrying any narcotics, though it did find that the Ocean Atlas was carrying declared weapons (rifles) for potential use by security teams when the ship traverses high-risk waters such as the Gulf of Aden. Carrying such weapons is common practice, given the ongoing battle against maritime piracy. The ship detention resulted from what amounted to an administrative mistake by a local customs agent. The Ocean Atlas itself did everything properly.” (The SIU also is renewing its calls for the International Maritime Organization to immediately issue regulations on private armed security companies in the acquisition, carriage and use of weapons utilized in protecting our crews. These rules should be agreed upon and given uniformity between United Nations member states. The union further pointed to the Ocean Atlas episode as an example of why Seafarers are encouraged to support the union’s Maritime Defense League, abbreviated as MDL.)
Knowing they were in the right only provided so much comfort for the crew, though, when armed local authorities boarded the ship and said all of the mariners would be arrested and would have to go ashore to issue statements.
“Fear of the unknown was the most discomforting part,” said GUDE Samir Tarsha. “I have nothing but positive things to say about the Venezuelan people, but we didn’t know what would happen next. It was especially uncomfortable for our families.”
Tarsha added that he “absolutely” appreciated the SIU’s work to help secure the crew’s release. “I knew that behind the scenes, the union was handling it.”
Asked to reflect on the experience after things had calmed, AB Bill Winnett summed up many of the feelings aboard the ship when he replied, “It’s hard to know where to start. Obviously, it was a misunderstanding.”
He continued, “I think we all knew we’d get through it, but it was a little bit scary at times. We thought we were going to jail…. We received emails and information from the companies and the unions, so we knew they were on it. We got a personal email from (SIU President) Mike Sacco himself. We all felt supported and we appreciated our families being contacted, too.”
AB Nicolas Byers said that while he personally wasn’t frightened, he was concerned that the vessel boarding may have become incendiary.
“When people come aboard with guns and speaking a different language, there may be a natural tendency to lash out,” he said. “We knew we were in the right, though, and we really appreciated what the SIU, AMO and everybody else working together did for us.”
“My personal feeling is relief that we’re home,” stated AB Russell Macomber. “We were there for 17 days and only five of them were really bad. The night they came aboard and told us we were going to jail wasn’t real pleasant.”
Reflecting on the overall experience, he added, “It made me more appreciative of the people in my life, and the SIU’s support meant a lot. The support was amazing and – I don’t want this to sound wrong – but it was unexpected. Seeing they were constantly involved meant a great deal.”
Chief Steward Connie Denoma said that despite the tension, she understood its roots. “It started with bad information, and that’s what I told the Venezuelan people: It’s not your fault. I could see the same thing happening in the United States,” she said.
Concerning the SIU’s support, Denoma stated, “I was very glad that this was a high-profile case and in the hands of people who’d use common sense. I’m thankful that people didn’t make more out of it than it was, and that cooler heads prevailed.”
Electrician Christopher Eason took the events more or less in stride.
“I didn’t think it was a big deal,” he said. “It’s part of the job. I thought the union did a great job and I wasn’t worried; as long as I was getting paid, I was happy.”
ACU Joel Ababa said he “only was worried because we weren’t in the U.S. But now that we’re back, it feels great, man. It’s good to be safe.”