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PORT AUTHORITY DENIES OKAYING BARGE REMOVAL

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The saga of the absentee barge Tug Life took some twists and turns Tuesday, Dec. 7, as various parties gave conflicting accounts with regard to the disputed removal of the vessel from the territory last week.
Port Authority executive director Gordon Finch said Tuesday in a release that his agency had no power to tell the owner of the barge to remove it from Red Hook. And he said officials of the Florida company apparently seeking to repossess the vessel lied in saying the Port Authority had granted consent for the company to do so.
The barge, operated by Global Marine Inc. of St. Thomas, had been transporting motor vehicles between St. Thomas and St. John since last spring. Global's president, Stanley Hedrington, reported to authorities last week that the vessel was stolen in the middle of the night of Dec. 1.
According to various sources, Tug Life was taken by agents of Mobile Bay Ferry Co. of Pensacola, Fla., the company that sold the vessel to Hedrington. According to Hedrington, there are no liens on the barge and he is current in his payments to Mobile Bay, which financed the purchase.
Hedrington contends that the barge could not have been taken from the Port Authority facility at Red Hook without some official of that agency knowing about it. His attorney, Arturo Watlington Jr., said he has learned that port officials knew something was about to happen prior to Tug Life's disappearance.
In a letter to Watlington, Edward Von Bergen, president of Mobile Bay Ferry, said he was contacted by Port Authority marine manager Maria Walters and was told the vessel "would no longer be allowed to operate" from Red Hook.
That statement conflicts with a letter from von Bergen to Walters in which the ferry company owner said he intended to repossess Tug Life because Hedrington had rejected a proposal to operate the vessel under a new business arrangement.
Finch, in the release issued by the Port Authority Tuesday, said, "Global Marine has never been told by the Port Authority that it could not operate," and "no one at the Port Authority gave permission to anyone to relocate Tug Life."
An employee in von Bergen's office in Pensacola, Fla., said he was not available for comment Tuesday afternoon. Repeated messages left for him in recent days seeking comment have gone unanswered.
Finch said the Port Authority does not have the power to determine ownership rights in a dispute between the buyer and seller of a vessel and that his agency, furthermore, has no authority to order a vessel removed from a facility under its jurisdiction in such circumstances.
In the release, Finch termed the letter from von Bergen to Watlington "so factually and legally erroneous as to constitute a ridiculous and offensive fabrication on the part of the seller, in which von Bergen claims that the Port Authority ordered the seller to ‘remove the vessel' within 24 hours."
However, Watlington, in an interview Tuesday afternoon, said he had been told as much by the marine manager on Nov. 19, two days after the passage of Hurricane Lenny through the territory. He said Walters told him she became frustrated when Hedrington refused to obey a directive from the St. John dockmistress to move Tug Life from Cruz Bay Creek to Red Hook prior to the storm's arrival.
A few days after the hurricane, Hedrington said publicly that he had ignored the order to move the barge because Red Hook was an unprotected harbor and he was concerned for the vessel's safety during the hurricane.
Von Bergen's letter to Walters indicated that his decision to seize the barge had come prior to Hurricane Lenny. William Howe, owner of Howe Marine Surveys of St. Thomas, substantiated this Tuesday, saying he had spoken with the Mobile Bay president earlier about providing security for the vessel at Charlotte Amalie until a representative of the Florida company came to take possession of it.
"I had contact with Ed von Bergen and we talked about doing that," Howe said Tuesday. But it never happened, he said, because of "difficulties associated with Hurricane Lenny."

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