UNALASKA, Alaska (AP) -- Immigration officials began searching cargo containers for stowaways Thursday on a ship that was diverted to this Aleutian port after crew members heard mysterious pounding noises.
No signs of human occupancy were found in searches of three of 1,556 containers on the 860-foot Manoa, which were examined inside a maintenance warehouse early Thursday, Coast Guard spokeswoman Marsha Delaney said.
''Because we haven't discovered anyone yet, to me that's a success,'' said Mike Conway, deputy director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Alaska.
Authorities will decide later Thursday whether to search more containers, Conway said.
The first to be searched was the one into which crew members punched an air hole and lowered food and water after hearing the pounding Sunday.
The container had been taken aboard in Qingdao, China, and was among more than 200 loaded in China, officials from the shipping company APL said. The manifest listed its cargo as human hair to be made into wigs.
The two other containers apparently were stacked above and below that one.
The incident renewed concern over stowaways and human smuggling attempts on the West Coast. In the past 18 months, 303 people have been taken into custody after being found aboard containers from cargo ships bound for Seattle, Los Angeles, Vancouver, British Columbia, and other ports, INS officials said.
Three people were found dead inside a container on a ship that arrived in Seattle in January. Fifteen survivors found in the container remain in the United States pending reviews of their requests for asylum.
In addition, 58 illegal Chinese immigrants died in an unventilated truck in June during a smuggling attempt into Britain.
APL spokesman John Pachtner said all shipping companies have had trouble with stowaways.
APL has had about six incidents in recent years where Chinese smugglers have snuck human cargo aboard its container ships, Pachtner told the Anchorage Daily News.
The company has tight security procedures, he said, but the smugglers, who charges tens of thousands of dollars per passenger, find ways around them.
''There are syndicates and gangs in China that are preying on people who are desperate, desperate to leave,'' Pachtner said.
The Manoa originally was headed for Oakland, Calif., but changed course to make an emergency stop at the port of Dutch Harbor late Wednesday.
The sound was traced to a non-refrigerated container, second from the bottom in a stack of seven on the tightly packed ship. The container couldn't be opened because the space between the containers was too narrow.
Once the ship docked, 72 other containers had to be moved to reach the one where the pounding was heard.
''The captain feels certain there are people inside,'' said Robert Eddy, Alaska district director for the INS.
The crew heard the pounding after a power outage silenced the refrigerators that cool some of the containers, Eddy said.
On the Net:
U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service: http://www.ins.gov
Matson Navigation Co.: http://www.matson.com
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