Stranded Yugoslav crew sues ship's owner for pay

Monday, February 19, 2001

Relaxed yesterday at Kapiolani Park

By FL Morris, Star-Bulletin
Obod crewmen Klikovac Velko, left, Radovic Goran, Kapesic Mirko
and Vukosavovic Milenko relaxed yesterday at Kapiolani Park.

The crew's lawyer files a motion for the ship to be seized and sold at auction

By Leila Fujimori

Star-Bulletin

Seaman Klikovac Velko's family has been living off loans in Yugoslavia.

That's because Velko has been stranded in Honolulu since Nov. 4 -- when the Yugoslav ship he works on was towed into Honolulu Harbor for engine repairs -- and he hasn't been paid in six months.

Twelve of the 20 crewmen of the ship Obod are suing the ship's owner for lost wages. According to their attorney, Paul Cronin, they each make about $1,000 a month.

Cronin filed a motion in U.S. District Court on Friday to have the ship seized. He also filed a personal injury complaint on behalf of Velko.

Velko suffered a deep gash over his right brow and lost most of the sight in his right eye during a lifeboat drill in Honolulu in September when the rusting ship was being repaired the first time.

"It's very bad. I can't see anything," Velko said through interpreter and fellow crewman Dragan Popovic.

"If the owner does not come up with more money to pay off debts, the ship will be sold at auction," Cronin said. He said the ship is incurring more costs daily, including state mooring fees of about $800 a day.

Nordic Technical Development Inc., a towing company, has also sued the ship's owner, Barmar-Bar Ship Management Ltd., for money owed.

Barmar-Bar owes more than $500,000 to several local companies. Nordic had U.S. marshals seize the ship Dec. 28.

During a storm, some of the ship's cargo went overboard -- large steel girders destined for a Washington, D.C., convention center site.

"These men risked their lives to save the cargo, trying to lash it down," Cronin said. "The thanks they get for risking their lives is to be abandoned in Honolulu while the big-money boys play their games in London."

Immigration officials kept crew members from going ashore after the standard 29 days' leave expired. "The crew was literally held hostage," Cronin said.

"Those two months were the worst months in my life," Popovic said. "Imagine walking in a few square meters," he said, describing the ship's tight quarters.

A Jan. 30 Star-Bulletin article helped prompt the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to reconsider and allow the men to leave the ship.

"Now I am thankful to immigration officers who realized it wasn't our fault and we didn't do anything bad," Popovic said.

The publicity also alerted the local Yugoslav community to the seamen's plight.

At Kapiolani Park yesterday afternoon, they enjoyed Yugoslavian music, barbecued pork chops, sausage and Serbian salad, and shared a game of soccer.

"It was nice to know that somebody cares about you when you are in dire straits," Popovic said. "I didn't realize so many fellow countrymen are here in Hawaii -- so many students."

Among them was University of Hawaii basketball star Predrag Savovic, whom some of the men saw play at Saturday's game.

Miki Vranesevic, a local Yugoslav businessman, has been assisting by taking things to the ship. "They're proud people. We try not to treat it like a charity," he said.

The Kahaluu United Methodist Church also donated $130, which was used to buy a suckling pig that the local Yugoslavs roasted and took to the ship last week.

"On behalf of all the crew members of the vessel Obod, we express great appreciation for everything best and good they've done for us in the last weeks," Popovic said.