Captain Courageous

Miami's notoriously dirty, crime-ridden river is flowing a little cleaner these days thanks to Coast Guard Capt. Dave Miller

The tide is going out along the coast of South Florida. The water level of the narrow Miami River drops, exposing rotten pilings propping up docks and lichen-covered hulls of ramshackle freighters. Several trading boats pass through the city's system of drawbridges, leave behind the last land, and steer for ports in the faraway reaches of the Caribbean.

Veteran bridge tender Jim Wellington watches from a control booth above the Miami Avenue bridge. For the past 24 years he has seen the problems of the river float toward him. In 1977 it was a murder victim, legs bound, arms cut off, long dead. In the 1980s, when drug cartel violence exploded in Miami, a jettisoned crate of Uzi automatic weapons washed up. He figures the illegal narcotics that have passed beneath him are worth billions. Starting in the 1980s he saw cramped, wooden-hull Haitian boats arriving. When they docked, smuggled immigrants swarmed out like ants. Then there were the spills. For years he would drop a rock into the river to determine the type of fuel passing beneath him. ("If the rock splashes and rings spread out from the middle, it's diesel fuel. If it stays a solid mass, then it's crude oil.")

For decades the Miami River was a waterway reminiscent of the the settings of Joseph Conrad's novels -- subtropical, multilingual, milling with activity, and largely unfettered, with dark subtexts. Grand juries, government study groups, and local residents all decried the dangerous demimonde inhabiting the river, which runs 5.5 miles through the city from Miami International Airport to Biscayne Bay. A 1992 Dade County grand jury report called it "a cesspool" of crime and pollution.

Then in 1995 Wellington and other river denizens watched a new Coast Guard official sail upstream and take over the job of head man on the river. Capt. Dave Miller was a straight-arrow career "Coastie," originally from Maine, who looked like a former high school valedictorian. This new head of the Marine Safety Office seemed as different as possible from the often feisty, salty, blunt-speaking river types. They wrote him off. "They figured he was just another federal agency employee who would make some noise for a while and then disappear," says Fran Bohnsack, spokeswoman for the Miami River Marine Group, an organization that lobbies for nineteen of the most powerful businesses on the river. "In the past the Coast Guard people had simply gone away after a while, or the industry had been able to make them back down."

But Miller, whose title is captain of the port, didn't leave or retreat. No one claims the river water is now drinkable, that its ships are drug-free, or that its banks are safe for a midnight stroll. But it is clear that Miller, who retired from the Coast Guard this month after 24 years, substantially changed the river during the past three years. In one fiscal year alone, 1995-96, the Coast Guard carried out 914 inspections of vessels on the river and wrote 3948 tickets for violations, about five times the previous year's total for each. Miller's crackdown resulted from two federally mandated changes. In 1995 inspectors began holding vessels less than 500 tons, including foreign boats, to the same safety and antipollution standards that applied to large freighters. And on January 1, 1997, the Caribbean Cargo Safety Code took effect, implementing more rules than had been on the books in most Caribbean countries in all the years since Columbus landed. Marine safety was improved and water pollution was decreased.

To achieve these results, Miller had to deal with prickly and powerful personalities, indifference from county agencies, political skullduggery, bitter feuds, hidden agendas, and open hostility. He also had to face the tears of Haitian boat owners forced out of business by his strict enforcement of regulations. Their colorful and often unsafe wooden craft, once a common sight on the river, have all but disappeared.

Miller also had to ameliorate the paranoia that has pervaded the river community, an abiding fear that shifty developers in partnership with bureaucrats want to replace the docks with hotels, restaurants, and pricey condos. As Norman Hempstead, age 41, a tugboat operator whose family has worked on the river 70 years, puts it: "I crawled out of a crib when I was months old and fell in this river. It's been my life. Now people want to plant shrubs all along it. Well, I'll fight for my way of life if I have to."

Despite having been posted around the world, Miller says he had never encountered a situation as politically and ethnically complex as Miami's in 1995. He was raised in the coastal town of Scarborough, Maine, where he dug clams, trapped lobster, and imagined a life on the sea. "Maine is like Kansas," he says. "From the time you're a kid, you dream of escaping from it into the real world." He studied at the Maine Maritime Academy, earned a degree in marine engineering, and received a Coast Guard commission in 1974 as an officer in marine safety and investigations. He served in Honolulu, flying all over the South Pacific, the Far East, Southeast Asia, and India inspecting American commercial vessels. (The Coast Guard regularly checks all American vessels, no matter where they do business.) On those assignments he saw small wooden commercial vessels like the ones he would later encounter in Miami. "I saw junks, sampans and craft like that, but I didn't have to inspect them," he says.

While posted in Boston from 1982 to 1985, Miller got a taste of what was to come in South Florida. "The fishermen up there are largely Portuguese," he remembers. "They were [members of] families who had been in it for generations, real independent. They didn't want to be told about carrying life rafts and having fire pumps that worked. But commercial fishing has a casualty rate two to three times higher than the average industry. And Congress said do something about it. In the end they came around. I even had boat captains admit we were right. But it wasn't easy."

Miller arrived in Miami during Memorial Day weekend 1995. He recalls the first time he inspected the river. "I thought I was back in the 1900s," he says. "Here were all these wooden-hull coastal freighters. Then you came to a small shipping terminal and you would see a sign nailed to a tree. 'This boat bound for Port-au-Prince on this date. Accepting cargo.' Everywhere else this is done over computers, but here we were in the last century. It was amazing." Miller found it colorful, "but I also saw that these boats were dangerous for their own crews and that the river had pollution problems, in part because of them."

Garbage littered the banks and oil created iridescent patterns on the water. Beneath the surface were countless tons of toxic silt. He also saw boats tied three abreast that almost blocked the channel. Other vessels were half-submerged and abandoned. Some small vessels hung strings of Christmas lights across their wheelhouses in place of the navigational lamps required by law. Others were piled high with bicycles and lawn furniture -- much of it bought from thieves. Tugboat operators called the commercial portion of the river east of 27th Avenue "Mecca," after the teeming Muslim holy city.

Miller knew he had a big job ahead. "I also knew I wasn't the kind of guy who likes to get up in front of people and give a lot of orders," he says. "I prefer to get things done with a more low-key approach." On the Miami River that would be tricky.

Fran Bohnsack wanted to help Miller succeed. She works in an office overlooking the terminal of Miami Ship Services on the river's southern bank near downtown. (In that space, known during World War II as Miami Shipyards, workmen assembled PT 109 gunboats like the one John F. Kennedy commanded for the U.S. Navy.)

Bohnsack hasn't spent her career working on the water like Miller. Not even close. She was a professor of literature, first at the University of Miami, and later at Nova University. In 1988 and 1990 she ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature as a liberal Democrat. In 1992 she agreed to take over the office of the conservative and crusty Marine Group. The organization includes shipping agents, tugboat operators, and owners of shipyards. Those firms were smarting from that grand jury report citing criminal activity and pollution on the river -- and also calling for a government-run body to oversee and clean up the waterway. The river users would pay fees to the authority.

Though no such body was ever started, the proposal itself caused concern. "The idea of an authority really worried [river business owners]," Bohnsack says. The Marine Group had already created a lobbying office. (Today its nineteen full members pay as much as $17,000 apiece per year to support it.) In Bohnsack they had a woman with the brains and the political experience to compensate for their tarnished, tough-guy image. While acknowledging the need for new tactics, they were still fiercely independent. Says one river insider: "These guys still don't want to hear anything that affects the way they've always done business. Sometimes they sound like little boys."

When Miller took over, Bohnsack invited him to address a meeting of the Marine Group at the Miami City Club. Miller had toured the river with his boss, Admiral Roger Rufe, who then called it "pure chaos." When Miller quoted Rufe, the businessmen were riled. "The moment I said it, I saw them move up to the edge of their chairs," remembers Miller. "They didn't like it. They got vocal. I could see right then what I was getting into."

After that meeting some group members concluded that -- though Miller would make trouble -- the river community would remain largely unchanged. They were wrong. Miller and his men at the Marine Safety Office, located on Terminal Island, started issuing citations to small and large boat operators for safety and pollution violations. Some ships were detained in port. The community paid attention. In September 1995 Miller invited everyone with an interest in the river to meet at a Coast Guard office. "I expected about fifteen people to show up, but about seventy actually came," he remembers. "It was pretty wild. Everybody had something to say, to complain about, and they didn't mince words."

Several more mass meetings were held during the next year to discuss issues like abandoned vessels and "rafting" -- blocking the channel by tying vessels together. Miller spoke of the need to involve private firms and public agencies in solving the problems.

Marine Group members attended but their distrust was palpable, recalls Miller. Their relationship with government agencies, especially with the Dade Department of Environmental Resources Management, had become bitter over the years. DERM, citing river pollution, had forced the closing of many venerable companies. The maritime companies became even angrier when they learned in May 1996 of a bill quietly introduced in the state legislature. That proposal, presented by then-Rep. Bruno Barreiro, would have created a river authority run by bureaucrats, similar to the oversight group that the grand jury recommended in 1992. The legislature's tourism committee also wanted to study the river's potential as a tourist attraction. The Barreiro bill stood little chance of passing, but the Marine Group sensed enemies closing in.

For Miller, it couldn't have come at a better moment.

At the meetings, Miller discerned the waterway's basic political conflict: maritime business versus development of pricey condos and tourist destinations. John Lambrakopoulos, executive vice president of Bernuth Lines, one of the largest shipping agencies on the river, expresses one point of view. Lambrakopoulos, age 40, is a native of the Greek island of Kalymnos. Bernuth is owned by Jordan Monocandilos, also a Greek and a former sea captain turned shipping agent who came to Miami in the 1970s. Bernuth holdings now include five shipping terminals and nine ocean-going vessels. The firm employs 140 people and runs a highly computerized operation in modern offices at NW 32nd Avenue and the river.

Lambrakopoulos has a reputation for his visceral defense of the maritime industry. He and other Marine Group members make no attempt to hide their intense concern about outsiders who may have designs on their valuable riverside property. "You never know who might be lurking out there," he says suspiciously.

On the other side of the argument Miller found Sallye Jude, a grandmother and the owner of the Miami River Inn. The 40-room rustic hotel looks like a mirage below the NW First Street bridge on the river's south bank. A group of nine neat, wood-frame buildings surrounded by gardens, the inn appears to be a transplant from the Napa Valley.

Since 1990 Jude, also a historical preservationist, has operated her hotel despite the river's high crime rate. She complained to Miller about thefts, garbage, and commercial vessels blowing their whistles late at night. Jude got little sympathy from the Marine Group. In 1997, for instance, maritime contractor Dick Bunnell declared that any attempt to gentrify the river should be opposed. "Whatever the agenda, we must seek it out and destroy it," he said, sounding like a submarine commander under attack.

"[The Marine Group] acts as if they own the whole river," Jude complained at the time. The two sides had nothing to say to each another.

But Miller was able to bring together Jude and the Marine Group. In September 1996 he formed a group called the Quality Action Team to tackle the river's problems; it comprised government agencies, river residents, and business people. "The idea is to put people in the other guy's shoes," says Miller. "Sallye Jude asked at one point that the river be closed to commercial traffic at 7:00 p.m. so that it wouldn't be so noisy. Maybe she didn't understand that those boats have to move with the tides and that would be a hardship. At the same time, the businesses need to listen to her problems because there is room for her business as well on that river."

He used intermediaries like Bohnsack to gently persuade the Marine Group to cooperate, stressing that he didn't want to issue orders. He also knew they were worried about a river authority. "I wanted them to know what might happen if they couldn't work out their differences. I wanted them to act in their own best interest," Miller says, with a hint of mischief.

Today Lambrakopoulos, while still wary of possible enemies, says he sees "no reason why a hotel can't exist on the river." He lauds Miller as someone who understands the needs of maritime commerce. Jude thanks Miller for securing her a seat at the table with the big boys.

And the two sides will likely continue to cooperate. The 1998 legislature created a new body, the Miami River Commission, an eighteen-member board that will include river residents and business people. Backed by both public and private money, the new group will guide cleanup and development of the river. Its first meeting is scheduled for August; a representative of the Marine Group will participate. Jude may also be chosen. And Miller, now that he is retired from the Coast Guard, has been mentioned as a possible executive director of the commission. Miller won't comment on his plans.

At a July 11 reception honoring Miller, he received government proclamations and gifts from Tiffany for his service. But he has not made everyone happy, not by a long shot. A subculture along the river that includes small-boat operators and companies is dying because of Miller's enforcement. Those people aren't saluting him.

The South River Pier Company is located on a canal near NW 32nd Avenue just off the river. Its offices are confined to two small rooms with scarred white walls that haven't seen paint in years. A faded map of the Caribbean is tacked up. A carousel holding rubber stamps sits on one of the three old desks covered with bills of lading and other papers. Records of each boat represented by the company are kept in three-ring binders stored in file cabinets. No computers. A dockworker's arms are liberally tattooed.

The traditional blackboard of a shipping agent hangs inside the door. Seven boats are listed, although two of them -- the Merci Jesus and the Pov Yola, both from Haiti -- have been detained by the U.S. Marshals Service for allegedly carrying cocaine. Two Haitian boats -- Sir Muscle and the Sarah -- are being upgraded to meet the new Coast Guard standards.

Eduardo Tamargo, age 51, a heavyset bearded man sits at a desk next to a phone that isn't ringing. Just last year the company provided dock space for dozens of boats. "Now we have three," he complains. "That's what these changes by the Coast Guard have done to us."

Tamargo works for Jose Machado, owner of the company. Machado claims he is a former seaman and was once a member of the anti-Castro underground in Cuba. (On a shelf next to his desk are a photo of former Pres. Ronald Reagan and a small Cuban flag. In a holster under his arm he keeps a 40mm semiautomatic handgun because he fears assassination by Castro agents.) He came to Miami in 1962 and about 1980 started work as a shipping agent, completing paperwork, storing cargo, and providing dock space for foreign boats. Almost from the beginning, he represented Haitians. The boats were mostly wooden-hull coastal traders averaging about 60 feet in length. By the 1970s many were arriving on the Miami River, loading up with cargo, and then making the 700-mile journey back home. They were often brightly painted and bore evocative religious names.

Those names didn't save them from Miller's crackdown. Though his application of the rules has damaged Machado's business, the shipping agent chooses his words carefully when commenting on the retiring officer. "He's not a bad guy," Machado observes. "I know he thinks he's doing right. But he is hurting a lot of people and hurting American commerce, too. He is being much too strict with all this."

As he speaks, a succession of boat owners -- all from Haiti but now living in South Florida -- arrives to speak with Machado. "I don't have anything good to tell them," he says. "The embargo against the Haitian military government from 1991 to 1994 almost put me out of business. But the Coast Guard is much worse. We won't survive this."

Tamargo recently wrote a letter to Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, pleading for help, He has not received a reply. "The Coast Guard is discriminating against Haitians," he declares, staring at the sparse list of names on his blackboard and growing incensed. "But you can't reason with the Coast Guard, because they are gods. What the Coast Guard is doing is hurting American commerce. These Haitian boats will go somewhere else. It makes no sense. I believe in being antipollution, but not in being extremist."

Sitting on his bright blue and red boat, the Pov Yola, at the dock just outside Machado's office is Pierre Charles, age 55. The boat is piled high with bicycles and lawn furniture. A wheelchair is wedged in a corner. On one bulkhead is painted a large mermaid with pink scales.

The Haitian captain and the vessel may soon leave the United States, never to return. Charles is waiting for the U.S. Marshals Service to release the Pov Yola. He was not in charge when it was detained for cocaine smuggling, but he will pilot it back to its home port of Port-de-Paix. Charles has been guiding boats to Miami from Haiti for twenty years. "Many of the boats they are banning were built in the United States and purchased here by Haitian owners," he says. "Now they tell us we have to change this or that or we can't operate here. It is not fair. It is an abuse."

Miller insists that all boat owners, including Haitians, were given adequate warning of the new regulations. He gets no pleasure from their problems. "I've had boat owners come to my office, sit in front of me, and cry because of all this," he says. But Miller also maintains that legitimate traders will forge alliances and buy bigger, steel-hull boats. Those who used to profit from illegally smuggling immigrants or transporting narcotics will no longer be able to do it on the river.

Downstream, bridge tender Wellington remembers all those colorful boats like the Pov Yola. Yes, the river will be a bit less colorful, he says. But he thinks Miller has done a good job. He sees a cleaner, safer river flowing beneath him.

"He has been amazingly easy to get along with," states Wellington, staring out to sea. "Especially for a bureaucrat.

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