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Tugboats on the Delaware

ISSUE:  Winter 1999

Imagine your car parallel-parked on a major thoroughfare. Think of someplace familiar. You’ve been to a movie or visiting friends, but when you return to your car, you discover that two other cars have parked really close to your front and rear bumpers, and you realize with a groan that you’re going to have one heck of a time getting your car out. “Thanks a lot,” you mutter under your breath, the thoughts in your heart considerably darker than the words on your lips.

You think you’ve got a problem, but it isn’t as simple as that because now you need to imagine that your car weighs 50 thousand tons and is 680 feet long. Did I tell you that the road surface itself is moving, like those moving walkways in airports? Well, it is, so all three cars are tied to fire hydrants and telephone poles to keep them from being carried away. And the lines are all crisscrossed, so you have to be careful not to get fouled in the other cars’ lines.

Oh, and you have to consider wind and tide, since a miscalculation of either could result in having your external rearview mirror torn off, or maybe getting the whole side of your car stove in. And it’s nightime, so visibility isn’t the greatest. And you can’t actually get into your car and drive it; someone you can’t see is sitting inside the car giving you directions by radio while you try to move the car with a small lawn tractor.

“Good luck, pal,” you’re thinking, “and more power to ya.” But this is exactly the kind of problem the crew of the tugboat Teresa McAllister handles routinely. This time, the problem comes in the form of a ship named Agia Sofia, docked at Beckett Street Terminal in Camden, New Jersey: parallel-parked on the Delaware River, you might want to think of it, the bow of the ship pointed upriver, with two other ships docked fore and aft; three big ships, all in a line, with Agia Sofia in the middle. Teresa’s crew must pluck Agia Sofia out of the line and send it on its way without disturbing the other two ships.

Michelle Musto, Teresa’s mate, brings the tugboat up under Agia Sofia’s port bow. From the wheelhouse, she can look almost directly across at the ship’s deck crew, but down on the tugboat’s main deck, deckhand Mike Gavin must tilt his head nearly straight back to see the men leaning over the ship’s railing high above him. Mostly what he sees is the ship’s hull, a dingy black wall of steel liberally streaked with rusty red, towering over him and appearing to lean toward the tug as if it were about to fall on him.

Given that it’s two o’clock in the morning, Gavin wouldn’t even be able to see that much were it not for the powerful lamp mounted at the front edge of Teresa’s wheelhouse roof. It illuminates the forward main deck, allowing Musto and Gavin to see what they need to see, like a small circle of daylight carved out of the surrounding darkness. The sound of water rhythmically slapping steel reverberates above the noise of the tug’s idling diesel engine.

Teresa’s captain, Bob Foltz, and the docking pilot up on the ship’s bridge (that someone you can’t see, sitting in your car giving directions by radio) have decided to attach a single line from the tug’s main bit to the ship’s port bow. There are bits all around the main deck of the tug: shoulder bits, double bits, quarter bits, stern bits, all of them used for securing lines. The main bit is a fat steel “H” bolted upright to the deck forward of the wheelhouse.

The big 8″ lines are too heavy to throw, so Gavin tosses a heaving line up to the ship, the throwing end given heft by a “monkey fist,” a round rope knot about the size of a grapefruit but two or three times as heavy. As the ship’s deckhands haul the heaving line up, Gavin attaches a heavier line by a series of loose half-hitches, then finally attaches an 8″ line, securing the other end to the tug’s main bit with a Baltimore hitch followed by three figure-eights, finishing with a single turn around one of the H’s uprights, a gesture that signals to Musto up in the wheelhouse, “I’m done; you can pull now.”

Once the tug has the ship firmly in its grip, the ship’s mooring lines are cast off from the dock. Then Musto puts Teresa’s engine in reverse and begins to pull. As the strain on the rope increases, the knot on the main bit begins to “sing”—a sound not unlike Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock—and Gavin scoots around to the side of the wheelhouse just to be safe: lines don’t usually break, but when one does, it behaves like a giant rubber band stretched until it snaps, and it will maim or kill anyone it hits.

At first nothing happens. There is only that strange singing, and the heavy rumble of the tugboat’s engine straining against thousands of tons of inert steel, and the washboard thumping of the tug’s propeller struggling for purchase, and the boiling water churned up by the prop and encircling the tug like a white wreath.

Slowly, however, ever so slowly, the ship’s bow begins to pull away from the dock. Finally, as Agia Sofia’s bow swings clear of the ship ahead of it, the ship’s own engine joins in. This will ease some of Teresa’s strain while keeping the ship’s stern from slamming into the dock as its bow swings out into the river, but Teresa continues to haul the ship’s bow counterclockwise, like a small terrier tugging on the ear of a mastiff, because the ship must be rotated a full 180 degrees before it is ready to proceed downriver under its own power.

With the more experienced Captain Foltz quietly coaching, the young mate makes the whole maneuver look about as difficult as pulling your wallet out of your pocket. A graduate of Fort Schuyler, the New York State Maritime Academy, Musto is 27. She holds an unrestricted third mate’s license, and got her first ship out of Bahrain during the Gulf War, a voyage that included mines in the Persian Gulf, machete-wielding pirates in the Philippines, a blown engine in the South China Sea, and two months in a Singapore drydock. She’d most recently been working barges before coming to McAllister Towing of Philadelphia, Inc., in March 1996.

Though her license entitles her to sail as mate or even captain of a tugboat, Musto is quick to say that she still needs a lot more experience with tugs, and she couldn’t be luckier than to come under the tutelage of Bob Foltz. Now 63, Foltz quit school at 17 to go to sea, and except for two years as an army combat engineer at the end of the Korean War, he’s been sailing ever since. Starting as an ordinary seaman and working his way up to captain, he’s worked aboard everything from tankers to pig iron barges to harbor tugs. And if the multiple tattooes on his hands and forearms make him look vaguely like an aging biker, in fact he is a gentle and soft-spoken man, unflappable, possessing good humor in abundance and the patience of a master teacher.

The actual maneuvering of Agia Sofia takes about 45 minutes, but Teresa is out nearly two hours because the tug has also had to cross the river to pick up the docking pilot on the Philadelphia side and bring him back across to the ship, then pick him up again once the ship is underway (if you want a little thrill, try climbing down a rope ladder at night from the deck of a moving ship to the deck of a moving tug) and return him to the Philly side before recrossing once again to Camden’s Two Broadway Terminal, where McAllister keeps its tugs.

By the time Teresa ties up and shuts down, it’s 3:15 a. m. , but by 3:20, all four crew members—the fourth is engineer Joe Molino—are in their cabins and headed for Dreamland. In the tugboat business, you learn to sleep when the opportunity presents itself. Teresa will be going out again in less than three hours.

Nestled up close to Teresa are Eric McAllister, James McAllister, and Suzanne McAllister (a rarely used spare tug), in the stillness of the night looking for all the world like a scene out of a children’s storybook or a litter of sleeping kittens. No one is awake except the night watchman, sitting in the small office of a barge permanently tied to the pier that serves as McAllister’s dockside maintenance and storage facility.

Tied to the same pier is a small Liberian tanker, Justine, while the Bahamian freighter Nyanza, unloading cocoa beans, is docked at One Broadway, just across the slip from the McAllister tugs. Moshulu, a four-masted square-rigger converted into a restaurant and currently under repair, is docked out at the end of One Broadway.

If you stand on Teresa’s boat deck, the moving lights of the Philadelphia Electric Company Building, the blue peaks of Liberty Place, two of City Hall’s yellow clock faces, the red FS of the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society Building, the white lights of the U.S. Customs Building, and the Pennsylvania side of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge all appear through the black skeleton of Moshulu’s bare masts and spars, and for a ghostly moment or two you can almost imagine what the riverfront must have looked like a hundred years ago.

But let’s not go back that far. Let’s just go back to a cold rainy April morning too shapelessly gray to tell if the sun is up yet or not. Then, as now, tugs and crews are silent, though you can hear a steady stream of water splashing into the slipway from a small opening high up in Nyanza’s hull, as if someone has left a spigot on, and the dull throb of machinery coming from somewhere deep within the freighter’s bowels.

Seabag over one shoulder, duffel bag in hand, I stagger clumsily from pier to barge to the deck of Teresa. From an open hatchway on the starboard side, I can look up the two short, steep flights of stairs leading to the wheelhouse. “Permission to come aboard,” I call up tentatively. The second time I call, a head pokes out of a cabin at the landing halfway up to the wheelhouse. The head belongs to Bob Foltz, who introduces himself, then shows me to a cabin on the main deck port side directly below the wheelhouse. He explains that Teresa has just returned from a job up at Tioga Terminal across from Petty Island, tells me there’s coffee in the galley, then goes back to bed.

The cabin is just wide enough for a double bunk bed with space to stand and walk to one side of it, and just long enough for the beds and two wall lockers. Two drawers are built in below the bottom bunk bed. The room has an overhead light, and each bed has a reading light attached to the wall or bulkhead. On the opposite bulkhead are two portholes, and below them a radiator. Because the tug’s superstructure tapers toward the bow, so does the cabin, and because the main deck sweeps sharply upward as it approaches the tug’s high prow, the floor of the cabin sweeps upward, though the bunks are level. It’s the kind of cozy, oddball niche little kids go nuts over, and it’s all mine. At least for a few days.

In the same year Michelle Musto was born, I spent a summer as a deckhand aboard a small Irish coastal freighter carrying general cargo between Dublin and Liverpool. I loved that ship, and I loved that life, and four years later, when I finished college, I went sailing again, this time aboard an American oil tanker off the West Coast. I loved that ship, too, though I was not destined to spend my life as a seaman. Eventually I moved on to other things, but I have never forgotten the sheer joy of a life spent on moving water, and I have never seen a ship or a tug or even a barge in all the years since that hasn’t wrenched from my heart an audible sigh.

So there’s no need to tell you that when the opportunity to spend a few days aboard Teresa arose, nobody had to ask me twice. I roll out my sleeping bag on the lower bunk, put a few things into one of the lockers, then set out in search of the galley, which turns out to be back toward the stern, separated from the wheelhouse and crew’s quarters by the engineroom.

It’s hard to avoid the engineroom on a tugboat, but more on that anon. Meanwhile, in the galley, there is thick black coffee in a glass carafe, a deep stainless steel double sink with cabinets above and below, and an industrial-strength stainless steel combination freezer and double-door refrigerator. A table with a bench built into one wall and three stools bolted to the floor resembles a breakfast nook, complete with several rumpled sections of yesterday’s newspaper, a half-eaten bag of potato chips, and a loaf of raisin bread. One of two doors opens onto the starboard main deck, the other into—take a guess—the engineroom. A television sits on a shelf high up the side of the refrigerator, but the heart of the galley is a squat iron stove fueled by diesel oil and almost never turned off.

Back in the old days, which for tugboat crews on the Delaware River means prior to the 1987 strike the crews ultimately lost, each crew included a cook (along with an oiler and a permanent mate), but these days crew members get $10-a-day food allowance, and must provide and cook their own meals. For lunch on the day I came aboard, Foltz ate a dish of cottage cheese and peaches, Gavin cooked up a hamburger, and Molino reheated leftover lasagna Musto had made a few days earlier.

But the galley is much more than a floating kitchen. When Teresa is not out on the river working, it serves as social hall, family room, and waiting lounge all rolled into one. At all hours of the day or night, you are likely to find someone in the galley—sometimes as many as four or five people, if Eric and James are both at dockside, too—drinking coffee, eating a snack, reading the paper, talking, teasing, just hanging out. Passing time.

A little before nine a. m. , Molino, the engineer, enters the galley through the engineroom door, looking as if he’s just gotten out of bed, which he has. His hair tousled and with several days’ stubble on his chin, he pours a cup of coffee and sits down heavily. Moments later, Gavin comes in through the other door, looking as wide awake as Molino, and pours himself a cup of coffee. He gets about two swallows down before Foltz comes in and says, “Start’er up, Joe.”

A tugboat is really just a floating engine girdled with huge rubber fenders made from old truck tires. The engineroom of Teresa occupies the entire midship from the bilges up through the main deck to the smokestack poking up above the boatdeck behind the wheelhouse. When you step through the door from the galley, you can either use a catwalk made of metal grating to go forward to the crews’ quarters and wheelhouse, or go down a steep flight of metal stairs to reach the belly of the engineroom. Surrounded by various generators, pumps, gizmos and all manner of pipes and valves and whatnot, the engine itself—think of your car’s engine block without all the paraphernalia attached to it—is about the size of my Subaru Legacy stationwagon, not quite so wide but longer and taller.

Forty years ago, when the engine was new, Molino says it could produce 2400 horsepower, but now he’s lucky to coax 2100 out of it. Brooklyn born and raised, Molino, 48, has been sailing for 22 years, working his way up from engine wiper (basically a seagoing janitor) to engineer. His first ship was a sludge boat hauling sewage. As he goes through the start-up sequence—moving from engine block to pre-lube valves to main bus (the main electrical panel) to DC generator to alarm panel, back to the main bus, to the AC generator, back again to the main bus, all the while throwing levers and flipping switches—he appears to be dancing with his machinery, a measured waltz amid a rising din that culminates in starting the diesel itself, whereupon verbal communication becomes no longer possible.

As soon as the engine is running, Gavin disconnects the power cable that provides electricity from dock to tug when the tug’s engine is shut down, then casts off. Gavin, 42, used to work on a fishing boat out of Cape May, catching mackerel in winter, squid in summer, until a cannery in Alaska bought the boat out from under him. He went from fishing to unemployment to another tugboat company and finally, in October 1994, to McAllister. Holding an ablebodied seaman’s rating, he can throw a line over a dockside bollard as easily as a cowpoke roping a steer, and he can pop it off again with a snap of his arm.

As soon as the lines are clear, Foltz backs the tug out of the slip, then turns upriver. Teresa’s job this morning is to undock the Panamanian fruit carrier Kyma from Tioga Terminal, then dock it again at Holt Terminal just below the Walt Whitman Bridge. Teresa carries a crew of three today. A mate comes aboard only when the work schedule requires an extra hand, so Musto is working aboard Eric.

Hard rain has given way to soggy mist carried by a raw wind, and the tops of the taller buildings on the Philly side of the river drift in and out of the clouds. On its way upriver, the tug passes working docks where ships and barges and tugs are tied, abandoned docks that are little more than rotting pilings with trees and bushes growing out of what used to be concrete, and still other docks converted into condominiums. Seen from below, the Franklin Bridge, astoundingly graceful from any angle, gives the illusion of a gargantuan mooring line in the absence of which New Jersey might well slide off the edge of the continent and drift out into the Atlantic Ocean.

While the galley is where it’s at when Teresa is docked, the wheelhouse assumes that function when the tug is underway. It is much like a cupola, high up and with large windows all around for 360 degree visibility. The windows facing forward open by dropping the glass straight down. The next day, Molino will demonstrate convincingly the usefulness of having windows that open. When a ship’s deckhand drops Teresa’s line in the water instead of onto the tug’s deck (if you think an 8″ line is hard to handle, try handling one when it’s waterlogged), Molino opens a window and lets by a series of colorful oaths calling into question the thoughtless crewman’s parentage and mental capacity.

Not surprisingly, there’s a wheel in the wheelhouse, but neither Foltz nor Musto uses it, Foltz explaining that it’s less responsive than the steering handles mounted on either side of it. These handles, positioned so you can steer from either side of the wheelhouse, are reminiscent of a sailboat’s tiller but unlike a tiller (push right, turn left), they work like the wheel (push right, turn right). There is also a throttle on either side just forward of the steering handles: push the throttle to go forward, pull it back for reverse, and the harder you push or pull, the more power you get.

Wheelhouse furniture consists of a built-in map table and two old padded stools like you’d find in George’s American Cafe, one of Gavin’s favorite hangouts. Two radios hang from the ceiling, along with a depth finder. A sign above the back window reads: “Perfectly Confused.” Even with the engine working hard, the wheelhouse is quiet enough to carry on a conversation in a normal tone of voice.

Teresa is back home at Broadway Terminal by 11:30 a. m. , with no other jobs scheduled until 8 p.m. The men eat lunch, then Foltz goes to the bank, Molino works on the tug’s heating system, and Gavin tops off the fresh water tanks, then cleans the wheelhouse windows. At four o’clock, Foltz, who lives in Clarksboro, New Jersey, and Gavin, who lives in Southwest Philly, go home for a few hours. Molino, who lives farther away, in Tuckerton, New Jersey, remains aboard.

Over the next 36 hours, Teresa docks one ship, undocks four others, and has one job cancelled before the tug arrives on station. In that same stretch, the tug is idle for periods ranging from one to seven hours. During the longer breaks, Foltz goes home four times, and Gavin three, while Molino and Musto (who rejoins Teresa in the midst of these comings and goings) manage to make a run to the grocery store.

Ships come and go at all hours of the day and night, so if you like regular hours and a predictable routine, you don’t work on tugboats. For those who do, just to make it more interesting, it’s a rare ship that arrives or leaves on schedule. Pacific Star goes out two hours early, catching Foltz and Gavin at home, and the two men have to hurry back to the dock. Ellen Knutsen, scheduled to leave at 11 p.m., reschedules for 4 a.m., then keeps Teresa waiting another three hours once the tug arrives, so instead of getting a few extra hours of sleep, Foltz, Molino, and Gavin get to watch the sun come up behind the Betsy Ross Bridge.(“You gotta be patient in this business,” Foltz says, exercising admirable restraint.) Later in the day, Teresa’s crew spends an hour and a half watching Kyma unload boxes of fruit with a single deck crane, four pallets to the load, two forklifts scurrying furiously back and forth between ship and dockside warehouse like busy ants storing up for the winter.

Each docking and undocking is different, but in every instance the tugboat’s job is the same: to provide the power and agility big ships lack in close quarters at slow speeds. Well, almost every instance.

At sunrise of my third day aboard Teresa, the tug goes out to meet a rare visitor to Philadelphia, the cruise liner Kazakhstan II, 550 feet long, painted brilliant white, with eight decks above the water line, looking positively regal as it steams under the Whitman Bridge. With Teresa running alongside, we can see dozens of ship’s attendants, men and women, dressed in black tuxedoes with white shirts and red bow ties—this is at 6:45 in the morning, mind you—and as we approach Penn’s Landing, passengers, all of whom seem to be senior citizens, begin to appear on the upper decks so far above us we wonder why they don’t all have nosebleeds.

The converted Black Sea ferry comes up almost under the Franklin Bridge, lazily turns counterclockwise until it’s parallel to and just below Penn’s Landing, then reverses its main engine, engages its bow thrusters, and slowly pushes itself backward and sideways right up to dockside. Teresa never does put a line over to Kazakhstan II, nor rub it’s grubby black working class fenders up against the liner’s pristine hull. Granted that docking at Penn’s Landing isn’t quite like putting Nyanza into the slip at One Broadway, it’s still an impressive performance by a ship that’s almost two football fields long and taller than the old Lit Brothers Building.

Back at Two Broadway, there is no work today for Eric, a mixed blessing for the crew: it’s a day off, but also a day without pay, the rule being “no work, no pay.” Teresa and James are scheduled to go to Delaware City—nearly four hours each way—to undock the Indian tanker Kishore. Teresa, slower than James, sets out at 10 o’clock. Before we reach the mouth of the Schuylkill River where it joins the Delaware, Gavin is asleep, and Foltz, too, soon goes below. Molino remains in the wheelhouse, keeping Musto company.

After two unseasonably harsh days with the wind whipping the river into whitecaps, this day is gorgeous—clear and bright with temperatures in the 60s—and the river is full of traffic: a red and black barge moves upriver, pushed by the tug Morion Bouchard, Jr. ; Teresa overtakes the barge Phoenix, towed by Miss Yvette out of Houma, Louisiana; a pretty little red, blue, and white Dutch tanker, Hoendiep, comes upriver.

Though it looks small next to the ships it handles, Teresa is 92 feet long and draws 14 feet of water. Running wide open, the tug pushes a white wall of roiling water in front of it and leaves deep swells fanning out from its stern. So powerful is it that every time it passes or overtakes a barge and tug, Musto must slow down for fear that Teresa’s wake will snap the lines holding barge and tug together.

Teresa passes under the Commodore Barry Bridge below Chester, Pennsylvania, soon coming upon two small launches headed upriver with something in tow. A helicopter circles overhead, and the launches are soon joined by a small Corps of Engineers tug. Musto and Molino take turns with a pair of binoculars.

“It’s a harbor seal,” says Molino.

“A harbor seal?” Musto replies. “It’s as big as the boat!”

“Maybe it died of obesity,” Molino says with a wink. (It turns out to be the dead fin whale that makes the front page of the next day’s Philadelphia Inquirer.)

By the time Teresa passes under the twin spans of the Delaware Memorial Bridge south of Wilmington, Delaware, James is closing from astern. The tugs arrive together at the entrance to the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, just below Pea Patch Island, then turn up Bulkhead Shoal Channel to Delaware City, where Kishore is waiting. The tanker is a behemoth: 900 feet long, drawing 60 feet when fully loaded. Since the Delaware River channel is only 40 feet deep, the tanker has had to offload part of its cargo to barges before entering Delaware Bay.

Gavin is out on deck by now; Musto is still at the helm. The docking pilot puts James on the tanker’s starboard stern. Teresa will start out on the tanker’s starboard bow, then switch around to the port bow. Musto brings the tug right up under the ship’s massive bulk, which literally blocks out the sun, leaving the tug, including the wheelhouse, completely in shadow. The ship’s starboard anchor, angry rust red and as big as a Winnebago, hangs out threateningly over Teresa’s foreward main deck where Gavin works. Foltz comes up to the wheelhouse and casually asks Musto why she’s positioned the tug so far forward.

“The pilot wants me on the stem,” she replies.

“Don’t listen to him,” Foltz replies, laughing, “You’re the captain of this ship.” But then he goes on to explain that she only needs to be up near the stem—the very front of the bow—once she switches the tug over to the port side.

“I’ve never done this before,” says Musto.

“Well, now’s your chance,” says Foltz. He grins, then adds, “No one’s perfect. That’s why they have White-Out for the dispatchers. You’re gonna make mistakes. The important thing is to learn from them. You’re doing damn good.”

Once the tanker’s mooring lines are clear, James must keep Kishore’s stern away from the dock while Musto maneuvers Teresa between the tanker’s bow and a barge docked just upriver, then between the ship’s port bow and the dock, a little tugboat ballet. Gavin has not put a line up to the tanker’s deck; the tug will simply push against the tanker’s hull with it’s bow fender. “Okay, open it up,” the pilot radios once the tug is in place.

Once again, nothing seems to happen for a few moments except a lot of sound and fury, but at last the tanker’s bow begins to move away from the dock. While Teresa pushes, James pulls until the tanker is far enough off the dock, then James, too, comes in close and begins to push, the two tugs rotating the ship 180 degrees in the narrow channel as if it were the arrow on “Wheel of Fortune’s” game board.

“Okay, go have your lunch now,” Foltz tells Musto once Kishore is moving under its own power, “You’ve done all the work.”

“I felt like I was going to hit everything,” Musto replies.

“But you didn’t hit anything,” says Foltz. “You’re projecting. Don’t worry about it until you hit it. Close doesn’t count in this business. You take it too seriously. Life’s a comic strip.”

“When you see me in my lifejacket with my wallet in a plastic bag,” adds Molino, “then you get worried.”

After Musto goes below, Foltz says, “She worries too much. She’s a good boat handler.”

By the time Teresa takes the docking pilot off Kishore and returns him to the dock, James is long gone. Musto and Gavin are both sleeping. Foltz sits on his barstool, leaning against the wall, one hand resting on the starboard steering handle as casually as if he were tooling down the interstate in the family sedan. Molino lounges comfortably at one end of the map table, using an old sofa cushion for padding. The two men, with 66 years of experience between them, quietly watch the river sliding by beneath them on its way to the sea.

Late in the afternoon, with Teresa still well downriver, the dispatcher radios that there’s no work scheduled for the next day: all three boats will be laid off; all three crews will get no pay. Foltz and Molino take the news stoically; you can’t work tugboats if you can’t go with the tides. For the crew of Teresa, there will be other days and other ships to handle.

For me, there will not. When we tie up tonight, I’ll pack the seabag I haven’t used in 24 years and will probably never use again, and I’ll return to my wife and my daughter. I’ll be happy to see them again, for I have missed them, which is why, perhaps, I was never destined for a life on the water. But tonight I will dream the smell of diesel fuel, and the piping hoot of Teresa’s whistle, and the heft of an 8″ line. And tomorrow I’ll wake up remembering that what for most of us is the stuff of dreams, for some uncommon few is the way things are.


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