Dominican stowaways plucked from middle of bay agree to return home

September 12, 1991|By John H. Gormley Jr. James Bock of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

The four stowaways from the Dominican Republic who were saved from drowning in the Chesapeake Bay in a dramatic rescue Tuesday morning have all agreed to return home and may fly back as early as tomorrow, the head of the Norfolk, Va., office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service said yesterday.

The INS official, William W. Bittner, said the four men had all signed "voluntary departure" forms in which they admitted to entering the country illegally and agreed to leave as soon as transportation could be arranged. Mr. Bittner thinks it will be possible for all four to leave "by the end of the week, knock on wood."

Three of the men -- Carlos Ordonez, 26; Renaldo Hernandez, 19; and Julio Cesar Soriano, 21 -- are being held in a Gloucester County jail in Virginia, while the fourth, Moises Arredondo, 31, is in a nearby hospital. By agreeing to leave, the men gave up their right to a deportation hearing. The practical effect will be to speed their release from custody, Mr. Bittner said.

"They want to get out of jail as soon as possible," Mr. Bittner said.

He said that details have to be worked out with the Dominican Embassy, including establishing their citizenship. Mr. Arredondo bTC will not be taken into custody until he is discharged from the hospital.

The four were plucked from the middle of the bay, miles from land after the pilot of a passing ship heard their cries for help. Following their rescue, they said they had stowed away on the Havtjeld, a coal ship bound for Baltimore from the Dominican Republic.

During an interview in jail, they told a Sun reporter they had crawled into the space where the shaft of the ship's rudder enters the hull of the ship.

Their version of the events is supported by evidence turned up during a Coast Guard inspection of the ship in Baltimore. Lt. Cmdr. Michael D. Kearney, head of the investigation division of the Coast Guard's marine safety office in Baltimore, said yesterday that an examination of the ship's "rudder trunk" turned up a pair of pants, an empty wallet, plastic trash bags and a candy bar wrapper from the Dominican Republic.

The evidence also supports the Dominicans' account: that they entered the rudder trunk from the water rather than by going aboard the ship and entering through a hatch. That suggests that the ship's crew did not help the stowaways find their hiding spot.

The Coast Guard found that the hatch connecting the rudder trunk to the inside of the ship was encrusted with paint and dirt. "It was obvious it had been undisturbed for a long time," said Commander Kearney.

Confirmation that the stowaways occupied the rudder trunk also helps to explain why the four men abandoned the ship when they did, just before midnight in the middle of the widest part of the bay perhaps eight miles from the nearest land.

Without a load of coal, the Havtjeld would have been riding high in the water and the rudder would have been partly out of the water, leaving an air space where the rudder shaft meets the hull. But it is a common practice of coal ships to fill their ballast tanks and even some of their holds with water as they approach Baltimore. This procedure lowers the ship enough so it can fit under the coal loading equipment at the terminal.

From the vantage of the rudder trunk, the stowaways would haveseen the water level rise, threatening to cover their exit. That's exactly what the three men said during the jail house interview. Fearing the water would trap them in a confined space where they would soon suffocate, the men said they decided to risk the leap into the bay.

Their fate then fell into the hands of Capt. William F. X. Band, the bay pilot who heard their calls for help. People familiar with the difficulty of executing a rescue in the dark amid such hazards as shoals and strong currents said yesterday that Captain Band's performance was extraordinary. "A lot of guys would just call the Coast Guard and let them send a boat or helicopter," Commander Kearney said.

His success represented a marvelous feat of ship handling, according to Capt. Michael R. Watson, the president of the Association of Maryland Pilots.

When Captain Band heard the cries for help, the ship was traveling at about 19 knots. That meant every three minutes took the ship a mile away from the men. Getting a big ship turned around takes time and complicated maneuvering, in this case including executing something called a Williamson turn, whichbrings as ship back on exactly the same track but in the opposite direction.

"The night was pitch black, no moonlight," Captain Watson said. "He knows where he can successfully perform a Williamson turn."

When Captain Band had executed his turn, slowed the ship, turned into the current and dropped anchor, the four men were right there, all around the ship.

"Those guys were lucky it was him there." Captain Watson said. "They had Divine Providence on their side."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.