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Tanker Crewmen to Face Grand Jury

Four involved in a fatal explosion and sinking might continue to plead the 5th Amendment.

March 14, 2004|From Associated Press

NORFOLK, Va. — A federal grand jury will question crewmen from the tanker that exploded last month and sank off the Virginia coast, killing 21 people, a lawyer representing two of the six survivors said Friday.

Four of the crewmen, however, may invoke their 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination, as they have with Coast Guard investigators.

"The most important thing we need is to talk to those witnesses," said Jerry Crooks, Coast Guard chief of investigations.

Crooks said it was too early for the Coast Guard to consider criminal charges related to its investigation of the Feb. 28 explosion of the Bow Mariner, a tanker carrying 3.2 million gallons of ethanol. Three crewmen died and 18 others are missing and presumed dead.

Stanley Sacks, attorney for crewmen Ramon Ronquillo and James Bactat, said his clients have been subpoenaed by the U.S. attorney's office to appear before a grand jury in federal district court March 24. Attorneys for the two other silent crewmen did not return phone calls.

When asked if his clients would again invoke the 5th Amendment before the grand jury, Sacks said, "They know they have that option."

The Coast Guard has interviewed the chief cook and mess worker, but investigators said they provided little insight.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office would not confirm the grand jury hearing, saying such matters were secret under federal law. Crooks also declined to comment.

A federal grand jury is called to determine whether there are grounds for criminal charges. It's not unusual for the government to charge crew members involved in accidents if they break maritime laws, but such cases usually involve Coast Guard-licensed crews in U.S. waters.

The 570-foot Bow Mariner was a Singapore-flagged ship with a predominantly Filipino crew in international waters about 50 miles off Chincoteague, near the Virginia-Maryland line. Shortly after the accident, Singapore's government asked the U.S. to lead the investigation.

The owners and managers of the ship handed over 1,554 pages of documents just before Friday's subpoena deadline, including crew licenses, training certifications and safety plans.

This weekend, a response ship will remove floating debris from the wreck site to make way for another vessel that will take underwater photographs and eventually send divers down to retrieve the remaining victims.

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