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INS Runs Out of Patience With Russian Crew : Immigration: Eight crew members still aboard disabled Gigant may be deported. Owner says money for repairs could come within a month.

September 26, 1993|GORDON DILLOW | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONG BEACH — The Immigration and Naturalization Service says it may deport the remaining eight crew members of the stranded Russian seagoing tugboat Gigant if the Russians don't fix their disabled ship and get out of Long Beach soon.

Ironically, that probably would suit the Russians just fine. After spending five months stranded in Southern California--and the last two months as virtual prisoners aboard the ship--the Russian sailors may be the only foreigners in the city who would actively welcome deportation proceedings.

"All crew want go home," Captain Nikolai Finogenov, 45, said in a ship-side interview this week, speaking in the broken but passable English he has picked up during his unintentional extended stay in America. "My wife say (by telephone), 'Come home! Come home!' But how long? Do not know."

The Gigant's star-crossed saga began last December, when the 20-year-old, 225-foot-long seagoing tugboat steamed out of its home port of Murmansk on Russia's northwestern coast, bound for the U.S. West Coast. After crossing the Atlantic and transiting the Panama Canal, the Gigant--the name means giant in Russian--sailed to San Francisco and picked up two old merchant ships that were to be towed to China and scrapped.

But two-thirds of the way across the Pacific the Gigant developed engine trouble. Another Russian tug took over the towing job and the Gigant and its 24-member crew were towed into Los Angeles Harbor and anchored there. That was in April.

Since then Captain Finogenov has been waiting for the ship's owner, a Russian company called Sevrybholotflot, to send an estimated $300,000 to repair the damaged engines. He's still waiting.

The ship first attracted attention in June, when a group of American pleasure boaters befriended the Russians and reported that they were running low on provisions. After news reports of their plight, the Russians were treated to several American-style barbecues at a nearby marina and were showered with food and gifts by concerned Americans.

At one point it appeared as if the crew--which included two women--would finally be able to go home after a relief crew was dispatched from Russia. But the relief crew made it only as far as Mexico City before being sent home because they did not have the proper visas. Later, another Russian relief expedition reportedly made it to LAX, but it too was sent back to Russia because of improper paperwork.

Finally, in late July, 16 members of the crew, including the two women, were flown home, leaving the captain and a skeleton crew of seven sailors aboard the ship. The Gigant was towed to Berth 31 in Long Beach to await repairs.

But once again the Russian ship company failed to send the money. Meanwhile, the INS, which initially had given the crew members temporary seamen's visas to leave the ship, and later twice extended the visas, finally ran out of patience. Last month, the remaining Russian seamen were ordered confined to the ship and the immediate dockside area.

Now, two months later, the crew members reportedly are starting to go a little ship-crazy.

"They're pretty bored," says Jim Sutton, a Long Beach police sergeant who has befriended the Russians. "All they can do is sit on the ship and watch TV in a language they don't understand. I think it would help a lot if they could leave the ship every now and then."

Agreed Finogenov: "If crew have visas it is better."

But according to INS spokesman Rico Cabrera, renewed visas for the sailors do not appear likely.

"They're in limbo right now," Cabrera said Thursday. "We've run out of extensions we can give them." Cabrera added that the Russians will be given an as yet unspecified "departure date" and if they are not gone by then they will face deportation, at the Russian shipping company's expense.

"I understand how (the crew members) feel," says Vitaliy Tkachenko, a Sevrybholotflot representative in Portland, Me. "It is a difficult situation. But the key is money, money, money."

Tkachenko said the Russian shipping company is trying to conclude a complicated deal involving the scrapping of another tugboat in India, the money from which will be used to repair the Gigant. He estimated that the money for repairs could arrive within a month.

Once the Gigant is repaired, he said, a new crew will be assigned to it.

Meanwhile, the Gigant crew members wait. Finogenov said the ship still has adequate provisions and fuel. They've been following the political situation in Russia over the radio, but Finogenov said the power struggle there probably won't adversely affect the Gigant's repairs.

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