Authorities come up empty in search for possible stowaways

Posted: Thursday, September 07, 2000

UNALASKA, Alaska (AP) -- Coast Guard and immigration officials began another search Thursday after initial efforts to find the source of a mysterious pounding sound aboard a ship diverted to this mid-Aleutians port came up empty.

No signs of any stowaways were found late Wednesday or early Thursday in searches of six of the 1,556 cargo containers on the 860-foot Manoa.

The first to be searched was the one into which crew members punched an air hole and lowered food and water inside after hearing the tapping Sunday.

A phalanx of INS agents, U.S. Customs Service agents, Coast Guard personnel, local police, medics and longshoremen descended on the cargo dock shortly after the vessel arrived Wednesday night.

More than 40 containers slowly were removed from the vessel.

The so-called ''suspect containers'' were examined inside a maintenance warehouse under tight security where armed officers carefully searched the contents, Coast Guard spokeswoman Marsha Delaney said.

''Nothing was found out of the ordinary not listed on the manifest,'' Delaney said. ''It was a careful, thorough search.''

The manifest listed its cargo as 56,000 pounds of human hair to be made into wigs. Officials found no stowaways and the hamburgers that had been slipped inside by the crew were untouched.

A second container taken from the same area of the ship contained only machine tools. A third turned up chemicals and another shipment of human hair, but there were no signs of human habitation.

By 5 a.m., officials were at a loss to explain what the crew had heard.

''I believe the crew heard tapping. I think they were very sincere about that,'' Conway said. ''I think the captain's very sincere about that or he would not have diverted it here.''

The unscheduled stop was very expensive, Conway said, although he was unable to provide an estimate.

The cargo 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 incident renewed concern about stowaways and human smuggling attempts on the West Coast.

Over 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 asylum requests.

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 sneaked 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.

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.

Unalaska is about 800 miles southwest of Anchorage.


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