Thirteen Filipino sailors have been stranded at the Port of Long Beach for three months after becoming unwitting star witnesses in a federal grand jury investigation, and don't know when they will be allowed to return home.
The crew of the Katerina, a 16,320-ton cargo ship, has been in limbo since the Coast Guard impounded the ship because of safety and environmental violations. Officials say the crew members can't leave until they testify in court.
The sailors lived for a while in a Holiday Inn in San Pedro, until the owner of the ship stopped paying the bill before Thanksgiving. Now they are sleeping on the floor of a charity group's offices in Long Beach.
"We are all helpless; we cannot say how long we will be here or what will happen to our families," said Roberto Yanoc, the ship's third engineer. "We are sacrificing our professions by being material witnesses."
The Katerina crew has seen its share of troubles on the open seas.
One crew member recalled being held up for more than a year off the coast of Nigeria because port authorities there claimed they didn't have space for the ship's cargo of rice.
Another remembered the time that pirates robbed his crew of more than $20,000 in a Brazilian port.
The Katerina, a Greek hauler sailing under a Maltese flag of convenience, steamed into Long Beach in early September.
Coast Guard officials boarded the ship Sept. 14 and discovered that its oil sludge filter had been disabled, the toilets were broken and crew members had been deprived of food and water.
Sailors complained that at their last port of call -- in Balboa, Panama -- they had resorted to boiling buckets of river water and fishing off the fantail. The ship, which was carrying steel coils and reinforced steel bars, also was infested with cockroaches and other vermin, crewmen said.
Federal prosecutors say the Katerina's captain, chief engineer and second engineer ordered the crew to dump oil waste and sewage overboard and to lie about it to Coast Guard inspectors. A federal affidavit also alleges that one of the ship's officers threatened to harm crew members if they cooperated with the Coast Guard.
Until the trial, which is expected to begin early next year, the sailors are prohibited from leaving the country.
Without work permits, the men are not allowed to hold jobs and have been unable to send money to their families.
Prosecutors forced the ship's operator -- DST Shipping Co., a Greek firm -- to post a $500,000 bond ensuring that it would respond to any future federal subpoenas and to pay for the sailors' lodging while the ship was made seaworthy.
After upgrades were finished, the Katerina sailed away and the company stopped paying the hotel bill. Because the men -- who had agreed to cooperate with prosecutors -- had no place to stay, the government stepped in.
"The one option the government had was to arrest them -- detain them as material witnesses -- and place them in the care of the United States government," said William Carter, chief of the environmental crimes section of the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.
Carter said officials contacted the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, hoping it could find housing for the men.
The following day, U.S. marshals handcuffed the men, put them in leg-irons and drove them to the courthouse. Prosecutors asked for the minimum bail and told a federal magistrate they were amenable to the sailors' release, with assurances that they would testify at a later time.
"We asked the representatives from the Filipino Consulate to be there to sign the bond," Carter said. "They did not show up. We asked that the union be there. They did not show up. The only people who showed up were the people from the International Seafarers and a Catholic priest. We released the individuals to their care."
The International Seafarers is a charity group that offers hospitality and rides into town to sailors at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
The Seafarers have since worked with the union to provide shelter and food to the crew.
"You're talking about faces in the global economy," said Ray Familathe, head of international affairs with the longshoremen's union. "Once these men, who are often from Third World nations, sail into international waters, they're countryless .... The U.S. government says they're going to help them, and then they put them in handcuffs."
Calls to Philippine Consulate offices in Los Angeles on Friday afternoon were not returned.
Carter said the Coast Guard was boarding an increasing number of ships for oil dumping and other infractions under the U.S. Department of Justice's 5-year-old Vessel Pollution Initiative.
Under that program, the Environmental Protection Agency, federal prosecutors and Coast Guard officials investigate maritime infractions and reward whistle-blowers -- usually part of the fines levied against ship operators. In one recent East Coast case, Carter said, whistle-blowers received $1.2 million.
Chief First Mate Eugenio Niez said he just wanted to testify and go home to his wife and seven children.
He has been away since March, and complained that the ship's owner had refused to send the spare parts needed to repair the vessel. He and other crewmen said they had seen the violations on the ship but were initially afraid to speak out for fear of losing their jobs.
"You know, working on a ship is like being in the military," Niez said. "As soon as you disobey, you will be told to disembark at the next port."