GLOUCESTER, Va. -- A little past midnight yesterday, Chesapeake Bay pilot William F. X. Band went out on the port wing of the ship's bridge to enjoy the cool night air and the phosphorescent glow stirred up by the wake of a passing ship. His vessel,the Nosac Takayama, was heading north toward the Maryland-Virginia line, miles from shore, when he thought he heard a voice pierce the darkness. A few seconds later, any doubts he had about what to do were dispelled by the sound of a second shout.
"I heard what I thought were desperate cries for help," he said. "I got a rather sick feeling that someone was in the water."
Captain Band sharply reversed the course of his 541-foot-long automobile carrier, while notifying the Coast Guard. As the Takayama moved slowly back through the area, the captain heard more cries.
"The sound of screams got louder and louder," he said. A searchlight from the ship revealed something floating in the water off the starboard bow. From high up on the bridge it looked like a grapefruit, Captain Band recalled. But then something moved. Captain Band saw "a little hand come out of the water." What he had seen was no grapefruit. "It was a man's face."
Within a few minutes one man had managed to swim to the ship's side and clambered shakily up the ship's ladder. Meanwhile, the ship's lifeboat was lowered and a Coast Guard patrol boat arrived on the scene. Together they plucked out three more men. They were exhausted and suffering from hypothermia after hours of struggling to stay alive in the water.
"They couldn't have been in much longer or they would have drowned," Captain Band said.
The four men are citizens of the Dominican Republic who say they stowed away on the Havtjeld, a coal ship bound for Baltimore. Three of them -- Carlos Ordonez, 26; Renaldo Hernandez, 19, and Julio Cesar Soriano, 21 -- told the story of their ordeal in Spanish yesterday in a cell at the Gloucester County (Va.) Jail. The fourth, Moises Arredondo, 31, was kept overnight at a Gloucester hospital for observation.
The three stowaways -- lean men clad in orange jail jumpsuits -- said they paid about $100 each to Dominicans they thought were in league with the ship's crew. They were led at night to a below-decks compartment next to the ship's propeller and rudder shaft. Using a grappling hook and rope from the water, they climbed up along the rudder shaft to enter the compartment, where they endured heat, noise and three days without food or water.
They said the compartment -- about 15 feet high and 5 feet square -- was sealed from the rest of the ship by a hatch that could only be opened from the outside.
They finally abandoned ship because water was rising up the rudder shaft and cutting off their air supply. They said they dove down along the rudder shaft to escape and spent about three hours in the cold water, swimming vainly toward a buoy that seemed to be moving farther away.
"Come on here, please!" Renaldo Hernandez said he shouted in English to passing ships.
"God helped us a lot. Without Him we wouldn't have made it," he said.
Mr. Ordonez said he boarded the ship in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, a week ago Friday with water and food for a five-day trip.
But the ship made another Dominican port call in San Pedro de Macoris, and his supplies -- a gallon of water, bread, salami and chocolate -- began to dwindle. The other three stowaways boarded the ship in San Pedro, they said. The ship sailed about 10 a.m. Thursday, they said, and their meager rations soon were almost exhausted. Fear set in. "Hunger, thirst, despair," Mr. Hernandez said.
Despite their dramatic rescue, their ordeal was not over. Soon after the four were brought ashore at the Milford Haven Coast Guard station near Gloucester, three of them fled to avoid being sent back to the Dominican Republic. They jumped out a window while the fourth man was being interrogated in another room and tried to escape through the swamps and tangled woods. Within a few hours, Coast Guard personnel had rounded them up. But one of the men then collapsed and was taken to the hospital.
All four remain the focus of attention from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which is moving to expel them as illegal aliens.
William B. Bittner, an INS officer in Norfolk, said he expects that all four will be forced to return to the Dominican Republic.
Louis D. Crocetti Jr., deputy director of the INS in Baltimore, said federal officers boarded the Havtjeld in Baltimore yesterday after its arrival to check if any of the crew had deserted or if any stowaways were aboard, but did not investigate any allegations of misconduct by the crew.
While ending up in jail and the hospital awaiting expulsion from the United States may not be the outcome the four Dominicans had hoped for, it is certainly much better than the fate they very nearly met in the middle of the Chesapeake bay.
The men said the poverty they were fleeing is so great they would take the same risk again.
"I'll come back," Mr. Soriano said. "Even if President George Bush doesn't want me to, I'll come back."