Cargo ship crew can leave the US under deal to comply with probe into Baltimore bridge collapse

BALTIMORE (AP) — Crew members on the cargo ship Dali can head home as soon as Thursday under an agreement that allows lawyers to question them as part of investigations into the cause of the deadly collapse of Baltimore's Francis Scott Key Bridge.

None of the crew members has been able to leave the U.S. since their ship lost power and crashed into one of the bridge’s supporting columns on March 26.

Under the agreement, which was confirmed by U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar during a hearing Thursday, the crew can return home but must be available for depositions.

Attorneys had asked the judge Tuesday to prevent the roughly two dozen total crew members — all hailing from India or Sri Lanka — from leaving. Eight of the Dali’s crew members were scheduled to return home, according to emails included in court filings.

In the court filings, attorneys representing the City of Baltimore said the men should remain in the U.S. so they can be deposed in ongoing civil litigation to decide who is responsible for costs and damages resulting from the bridge collapse. Six construction workers were killed and most maritime traffic through Baltimore’s busy port was temporarily halted.

“The crew consists entirely of foreign nationals who, of course, have critical knowledge and information about the events giving rise to this litigation,” attorneys wrote. “If they are permitted to leave the United States, Claimants may never have the opportunity to question or depose them.”

Attorney William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr., representing a claimant named Damon Davis, said the litigation over the bridge collapse “may be the most expensive maritime case in the history of the world.”

“Everybody is paying close attention to the details so that we can unravel all aspects of this and come up with a just result,” Murphy said.

Seven attorneys represented the federal government at the hearing. Two lawyers who represented the Dali's owner ignored questions as they left the courthouse.

Lawrence B. Brennan, a longtime admiralty lawyer based in New Jersey, said these kinds of legal battles are not uncommon or even unprecedented.

“It’s going to get complicated for a while,” said Brennan, who previously worked for the Justice Department and is an adjunct law professor at Fordham University. “And I don’t think anything is going to get resolved in the next few weeks or months, unless somebody decides it’s in their best interest to pay off the case.”

Brennan said it’s important to complete the depositions soon to avoid stalling the case.

“We don’t want to be talking these same issues two to three to four years from now," he said.

But he warned it can be hard to make witnesses comply with such an agreement once they have left the U.S.

“The promise to come back is hard to enforce,” Brennan said. “So, if it isn’t enforced, then the court has to decide what the consequences are. And usually that is punishment for the party who broke the agreement.”

Darrell Wilson, a spokesperson for the ship’s owner, said Tuesday evening that some crew members were scheduled to leave but he couldn’t say when, and that others would remain to assist with the investigation. He also said he wasn’t sure when the ship would leave Baltimore for Norfolk, Virginia, where it will receive extensive repairs.

The hulking container ship remained pinned amid the wreckage of the fallen bridge for almost two months while workers removed thousands and thousands of tons of mangled steel and concrete from the bottom of the Patapsco River at the entrance to Baltimore’s harbor.

The ship’s crew remained on board even when explosives were detonated to break apart fallen bridge trusses and free the vessel from a massive steel span that landed across its bow.

The ongoing civil litigation began with a petition from the ship’s owner and manager, two Singapore-based companies, seeking to limit their legal liability for the deadly disaster.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigation found the ship experienced two power outages in the hours before it left the Port of Baltimore. In the moments before the bridge collapsed, it lost power again and veered off course. The agency is still investigating what caused the electrical failures.

The FBI also launched a criminal investigation.

According to the emails included in Tuesday’s court filings, the eight crew members scheduled to return home have already been interviewed by Department of Justice investigators, and the department doesn’t object to their departure. The crew members were flying out of Baltimore “likely on or about" Thursday, an attorney for the ship’s owner and manager wrote.


Brumfield reported from Silver Spring, Maryland. Finley reported from Norfolk, Virginia.