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Ship crew returns home to Florida after 52 days in Honduras jail

By Letitia Stein

TAMPA Fla. (Reuters) - Crew members of a Florida-based salvage ship who had been jailed for 52 days in Honduras on gun smuggling charges were welcomed back to their home port on Wednesday after a Honduran court dismissed the case against them.

The crew's six men, aged 26 to 60, were freed last week following diplomatic efforts involving the U.S. State Department and members of Congress.

"I feel like a piece of jelly," Robert Mayne, the ship's captain and company president, said after the tearful homecoming. "I am exhausted emotionally, drained and exhausted, but I feel very good."

The crew members' wives, parents and children were waiting as they docked in Tarpon Springs, Florida, along with local media, Mayne said. The men were greeted with balloons, American flags and ice-cold beer.

He said the men working aboard the 65-foot (20-metre) salvage ship were arrested just hours after they pulled into port at Puerto Lempira, Honduras, on May 5.

The company, Aqua Quest International, had a contract with a local municipality to remove logs that were blocking boat access to local island villages.

Company officials said they told port officials in advance they would be carrying guns for protection against pirates.

"We didn't violate any law," said Mayne, adding he believed the imprisonment amounted to extortion by local authorities seeking money for their release.

A spokesman for the Honduran armed forces said last month the crew was arrested because it did not have permits to possess guns in the country.

Mayne said the company, whose projects include locating shipwrecks and recovering their precious cargo, planned to return to Honduras.

The project that brought the crew to the country included teaching wood crafting skills to crippled lobster divers and selling the goods internationally.

(Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney)

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