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After months stuck on the Dali, most crew members will finally deboard as the cargo ship prepares to leave Baltimore

Salvage crews are seen removing debris from the Francis Scott Key Bridge from the container ship Dali on June 18, 2024. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun/TNS/Getty Images via CNN Newsource) Salvage crews are seen removing debris from the Francis Scott Key Bridge from the container ship Dali on June 18, 2024. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun/TNS/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)
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Twelve weeks after the Dali cargo ship lost power and crashed into a famed Baltimore bridge, the mammoth vessel will soon leave for repairs – with only a handful of crew on board.

The 20 Indians and one Sri Lankan on board have been stuck on the ship since March 26, when the 984-foot ship lost propulsion, veered off course and destroyed the Francis Scott Key Bridge – killing six construction workers. They’ve been unable to leave for a variety of reasons.

But at a Thursday court hearing, a judge approved a deal that would allow eight of the crew members to fly home as early as this week. And on Friday, a spokesperson for the crew’s employer said federal authorities have cleared two more seamen to return home halfway around the world.

The two newly cleared crew members are both cadets who were on board as part of a training program when the tragedy unfolded, said Darrell Wilson, a spokesperson for ship manager Synergy Marine.

As for the 213-million-pound vessel, which has been docked at Baltimore’s Seagirt Marine Terminal for a month, the Dali is now tentatively scheduled to leave for Norfolk, Va., on Monday for repairs.

Four crew members will stay on board for the voyage, said the Rev. Joshua Messick, director of the Baltimore International Seafarers’ Center and chaplain for the Port of Baltimore.

The crew members who do not have clearance to fly home – including all the ship’s officers – must stay in the United States until litigation involving the crash is finished, which could take more than a year, Messick said Thursday.

Wilson, the Synergy Marine spokesperson, could not confirm whether the remaining crew members will be forced to stay in the U.S. until the end of litigation. But he said they’re remaining in the US for now “because they are participating in the investigation.”

The crew members who will stay indefinitely in the US will be moved to hotels or apartments, Messick said.

“They’re anxious, under considerable stress considering they don’t know what the future holds,” Messick said Thursday. “They don’t know when they’ll see their family again or how they’ll be treated here.”

The drama over 8 crew members’ fate

While none of the crew members have been charged in connection with the disaster, investigations are underway to determine who might be responsible. Baltimore’s mayor has announced legal action, vowing to “hold the wrongdoers responsible.”

Attorneys for the city and for a bridge inspector who nearly died in the disaster want to depose the crew members, according to filings in the U.S. District Court of Maryland. But legal technicalities have prevented them from doing so, said Jason Foster, an attorney representing the bridge inspector.

The attorneys expressed shock in court documents this week after receiving an email from William Bennett, an attorney representing the ship’s owner and manager, saying eight crew members might soon be able to fly home.

“Our clients are in the process of arranging for replacement crew for the DALI,” Bennett wrote in an email to dozens of recipients Tuesday. “We have been advised that the U.S. Coast Guard will permit certain crew members to return to their home countries but has requested that other crew members remain in the United States.”

The eight eligible crew members do not include any officers, Wilson said. They include a cook, a fitter, an oiler and several able-bodied seamen.

“All of these crew members have been interviewed by DOJ and DOJ does not object to their departure from the United States,” Bennett wrote in his email, which was attached to court filings. CNN has reached out to the Department of Justice and the U.S. Coast Guard for comment.

Attorneys for the city and the bridge inspector filed emergency motions this week, asking a judge to temporarily ban any crew members from leaving the U.S. because they hadn’t been deposed.

But opposing sides reached an agreement late Wednesday that would protect attorneys’ ability to get sworn statements from the crew while allowing some of the seamen to go home.

Their depositions “will be taken in London or elsewhere by written agreement of all parties to the Litigation,” according to terms of the agreement filed in court.

The depositions will take place “no sooner than November 2024,” the document states.

Synergy Marine and Grace Ocean must make the crew members available for depositions in the months ahead and provide documents including personnel files, employment contracts and training files, according to the terms of the deal.

A judge approved the agreement Thursday. But it’s still unclear exactly when those eight seamen will get to leave, Wilson said.

Why the crew wasn’t deposed earlier

No civil lawsuits can get underway because of a pending request by the ship’s owner and manager to limit their financial liability, said Foster, one of the attorneys representing the bridge inspector. Foster said his client narrowly escaped and lost six friends in the bridge collapse.

Six days after the catastrophe, Grace Ocean and Synergy Marine filed a petition in federal court asking for a US$43.6 million cap on potential liability payouts.

But a decision on that request probably won’t happen anytime soon, since potential claimants have until Sept. 24 to come forward, Foster told CNN Wednesday.

And due to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Foster and other attorneys weren’t able to depose the crew members until all of the potential claimants had come forward – in other words, possibly September or later.

But with the new agreement approved Thursday, the eight crew members can leave the country before they’re deposed. And if the ship’s owner or manager violates any terms of the agreement, they could face sanctions by the court.

How the crew is faring now

Despite months-long separation from their families, the seafarers are in good spirits, said Wilson, the Synergy Marine spokesperson.

He said the company “looks after them on a daily basis,” helping make sure they have the supplies they need. And local seafarers’ organizations have “been tremendous in helping to look after the crew,” Wilson told CNN on Wednesday.

The seamen have had pizza and catered foods delivered as well as access to cricket matches broadcast from their home countries – “you know, small touches that mean a lot to the crew,” Wilson said.

The fate of 11 crew members who must stay in the US remains in limbo. It’s not clear how many more weeks or months they’ll have to stay half a world away from their loved ones.

“As soon as we can get them cleared,” Wilson said, “we’d like to return them to their families as well.”

CNN’s Mary Kay Mallonee and Jeff Winter contributed to this report.

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