I Didnt expect the Trade Union to be so mighty

Rafael Khasanov, the chief mate at Millennial Spirit (IMO 7392610, flag of Moldova), who took missile fire in the neutral waters of the Black Sea on 25 February 2022, learned firsthand what a trade union can do when its members are in trouble. The chief mate and his colleague, cadet Nikita Petrov, spoke about the events of that day and about people who provided help and shelter to the seamen and how the bunker vessel crew consisting exclusively of Russians returned to their homeland a month later.

Just another working day

There was no a single sign of forthcoming trouble, recalls Nikita Petrov. It was just another working day, like many others before.

Chief mate Rafael Khasanov says that the crew knew about the special operation that had begun in Ukraine, but on 24 February they received no recommendation from the company to leave the bunker vessel's usual area of operations: This area had normally been free of warships; there were only civilian ships next to us. We are always around as ships are being bunkered here.

On the night of 25 February, Millennial Spirit bunkered a ship bound for Romania, and by noon received a message from the operator. It said that, unless another communication is received from the company within 45 minutes, Millennial Spirit should also head for Romania. The bunkering vessel was finishing refueling a floating crane.

Ten minutes later, Millennial Spirit was on fire as well as mooring lines of the floating crane, which, after refueling, was moving away from the bunkering vessel.

The master had it worst

I and the boatswain were on the forecastle, says Nikita Petrov. We did not see what happened, we just heard a whistle and then a blast; we turned around and saw a fire.

The seamen started calling for help on the radio, but no one responded. Then the boatswain decided to start the fire pump: they wanted to put out the fire, but there was no power.

Rafael Khasanov was in the cabin at that moment; he felt a strong vibration apparently, activation of the fire alarm: I tried to reach the bridge to understand what was happening; besides, we had our wetsuits there. I opened the door, and there were flames. He says that he does not remember to have seen something like that before, although he had to deal with various situations in the fleet, fires being no exception.

The master, the chief mate and the second engineer had to get out of the chief engineer's cabin. There was the burning bridge above it and a protruding deck below it, a feature of the bunkering vessel's design. So they had to jump a somewhat forward and into the water in order not to hit the deck.

We pushed out the second engineer and ties some bedsheets for the master, says Rafael Khasanov.

He used the bedsheets to go down; apparently, one of them was torn, he fell on the deck and got badly hurt, broke his right arm and could no longer grab onto anything, says the cadet.

We faced no violence

The help arrived fairly quickly. The tugboat Tuman recovered the seamen out of the water: they spent about 20-30 minutes in water at a temperature of +6C. The crew members who had gathered on the bow of the vessel, transferred to the tugboat Rodomir. The seamen, including the master, were transferred from the tugboats to the rescue boat SAR-2, which delivered them to Chernomorsk. Ambulance vehicles were already on the beach.

We were delivered to the hospital in Chernomorsk, continues Rafael Khasanov. The physician-in-chief warned us immediately that if the wounded would arrive, we would have to go. And then a pastor of the Resurrection Baptist Church came and offered his help.

On very first day of arrival I approached a nurse and asked to use WhatsApp to call the family, and the next day my fathers friends brought me a phone with a SIM card, says Nikita Petrov.

The crew members stood in the hospital from 25 February to 8 March and then accepted the pastor's proposal to reside in the church. Unfortunately, not all the crew members were discharged: the master died from the injuries and burns in the hospital on 5 March.

In the church, the Russians were given one room for all in the basement and stayed here until 23 March.

Everything was fine; sure, it was not like at home, but we had enough of everything we needed. We didn't go outside the area. We communicated with the parishioners only and faced no violence, says the chief mate.

Time to go home

All this period we were in touch with the agent, but, honestly, we didnt see his much interest in sending us home, Rafael Khasanov states. The company's representative did not say anything reasonable at all about our situation.

One day, a man from the migration service arrived, checked their identities by the copies of our international passports that were available at the company, and issued a kind of strange certificate, which, as the chief mater thinks, would not allow us to cross the border.

The Seafarers' Union of Russia and personally the chairman Yury Sukhorukov played a great role. He helped us a lot with the papers: he contacted the Russian embassy in Chisinau to issue certificates for us to return to the Russian Federation. Yury Sukhorukov always kept in touch with us and instructed us how to behave (it turned out quite useful); he always answered the calls of our worried relatives. The support of the SUR was very valuable and effective, says Rafael Khasanov.

Indeed, the SUR has done some huge work: they appealed to the Ministry of Transport of the Russian Federation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, the International Transport Workers Federation, the International Labor Organization and the International Maritime Organization with a request to coordinate their efforts for the soonest possible repatriation of the Millennial Spirit crew members.

It was an exchange

On 24 March an exchange took place; it is normally believed that civilians are not exchanged only military personnel, but in that particular case it was definitely an exchange. For some reason, we had not been allowed to leave as civilians, and then the so-called exchange had taken place, but we realized it not before we were brought to the Zaporozhye Region, explains Rafael Khasanov.

Around midnight some personnel arrived, they said that's a formality, document check, recalls Nikita Petrov. At first I felt disturbed, but then I saw personnel from the port and this added me confidence, so I realized that we were going home.

They put us on a bus and took away our cell phones. I didnt even have time to call my relatives and the trade union to inform them that we were being taken away from the church in an unknown direction, says the chief mate. Then we all were commanded to get into a closed truck, so we could not see where we were going. An hour later, some military personnel were added to us, they were blindfolded and their hands were tied. Together we rode for another 10 minutes. They brought out first the military and then us, and lined us all up. A Russian side representative came out with a white flag. He had a list of names; everyone was verified, and the exchange started. We went down to a small river, crossed the stream and climbed up to see our military personnel up there. The Ukrainians did the same. Then were escorted first to Melitopol and then to Simferopol, where we flew from a military airfield to Moscow. In Moscow, the military were taken to one side, and we were taken to the other. I felt calm as we dealt with people in civilian clothes from that point.

Trade union means strength

In Moscow, the seamen were accommodated in a hotel, where personnel of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation arrived. Later, the crew was moved to the office of the Ombudsman Tatyana Moskalkova, where the seamen were given temporary identity cards instead of their lost passports and allowed them to go home.

The crew had no funds as all their valuables had drowned. Therefore, the SUR undertook the payment for the repatriation of its members: Rafael Khasanov got a ticket to Astrakhan and the rest seamen to Kerch.

Yes, we were members of the trade union, but, honestly, I did not expect it to be so influential and mighty. It is worthy to note that, when it all happened, our company did not recommend us contacting the SUR as they wanted to sort out the situation on their own, says the chief mate.

But the seamed did it differently.

Rafael Khasanov say that he had never applied to the SUR before fortunately, there were no reasons. He has been at sea since 2009, and has been in the chief mate position for the last five years. He says that he is going to have his papers reissued and surely go to a voyage.

The situation did not discourage me from the sea. The life goes on. I was in shock, but I tried not to panic and to control myself, he admits.

For Nikita Petrov, a third-year student of the Marine Engineering College of the Kerch State Marine Technological University, the Millennial Spirit voyage was the second voyage in his life. The first one was on a cruise vessel. He also says that he is not going to quit the profession, although he had doubts.

I will surely continue, he says. When it all happened, I first had a no more seas stance, but then I thought that lightning never strikes the same place twice.

Now both seamen are re-obtaining their papers. By the way, the educational institution has credited Nikita Petrov's practical training on board of the bunkering vessel. It remains for him to submit a voyage certificate, which the company promises to issue.

In addition, Rafael Khasanov adds, the employer has not fulfilled his some other obligations to the seamen: The salary has not been paid yet. Compensation for moral harm and for lost things is still in question. The SUR helps us in solving these issues too we are all the time in touch.