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Cargo ship crew members can go home under agreement allowing questioning amid bridge collapse probes

Attorney Billy Murphy speaks to media outside the Edward A. Garmatz United States District Courthouse in Baltimore, Thursday, June 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Stephanie Scarbrough)
Stephanie Scarbrough/AP
Attorney Billy Murphy speaks to media outside the Edward A. Garmatz United States District Courthouse in Baltimore, Thursday, June 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Stephanie Scarbrough)

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 amid ongoing investigations into what led to the deadly collapse of Baltimore's Francis Scott Key Bridge.

That would mark the first time any of the crew members leave U.S. since their ship lost power and crashed into one of the bridge’s supporting columns on March 26.

U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar confirmed at a hearing Thursday that the agreement allowing the crew to return home but still be available for depositions was in place.

Attorneys had asked the judge Tuesday to prevent crew members on the cargo ship Dali from returning to their home countries. Eight of the Dali’s crew members were scheduled to return home, according to emails included in court filings. Those eight were among the roughly two dozen total crew members, all of whom hail from India and Sri Lanka.

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 over who should be held responsible for covering costs and damages resulting from the bridge collapse, which killed six construction workers and temporarily halted most maritime traffic through Baltimore’s busy port.

“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.”

The judge asked two attorneys at the hearing — William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr. and Jason Foster — why they didn’t notify him sooner that they had agreed to the deal regarding depositions. The attorneys, who represent a claimant named Damon Davis, withdrew their emergency request for a hearing less than an hour before it started.

The judge described the litigation as “very complex” and said the attorneys “need to all bring their A-game to this matter or we're going to bog down.”

After the hearing, Murphy said witnesses are typically questioned under oath at depositions that are held after documents are shared with the parties.

“You don't have the depositions first because you don't have all the material you need to ask intelligent questions and to find out more about what really happened,” Murphy said.

Murphy said the litigation over the bridge collapse “may be the most expensive maritime case in the history of the world.”

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

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

Darrell Wilson, a spokesperson for the ship’s owner, said Tuesday evening that some crew members were scheduled to leave and some would remain to assist with the investigation. Wilson said he was unable to provide additional details about how many crew members were leaving and when.

He also said he wasn’t sure when the ship itself would leave Baltimore for Norfolk, Virginia, where it will receive more 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 collapse, it lost power again and veered off course. The agency’s investigation is still ongoing to determine what exactly caused the electrical issues.

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 that the department doesn’t object to their departure. The crew members will fly out of Baltimore “likely on or about" June 20, an attorney for the ship’s owner and manager wrote.


Brumfield reported from Silver Spring, Maryland.