Immigrants' ship runs aground in N.Y. 7 perish 300 Chinese spent 3 months at sea

263 held by INS

June 07, 1993|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- A tramp steamer smuggling hundreds of illegal Chinese immigrants ran aground off a New York beach early yesterday, ending a 17,000-mile odyssey from the Far East in a nightmare of panic, chaos, death and capture within sight of the golden door.

At least 7 people were killed and 16 were seriously injured, authorities said, as scores of terrified passengers leaped into the sea and tried to swim and wade ashore from the stricken 150-foot vessel, the Golden Venture, her keel fast on a sandbar 200 yards offshore near Jacob Riis Park on the Rockaway Peninsula.

By the end of a harrowing day, 263 refugees, including two dozen women, were in custody on the beach or accounted for, although as many as 30 were missing, either drowned or escaped; the rogue ship's 13 crewmen were under arrest, officials said. And the vessel had been run ashore by high tide, leaving her faded green, rusty hulk upright, a bizarre thing near a scenic beach of dunes popular with New Yorkers on summer weekends.

Meanwhile, immigration authorities with interpreters of Mandarin and other Chinese dialects were questioning the aliens, trying to piece together an account of dreams and misadventure that began months ago in China and brought them two-thirds of the way around the world through hunger, filth, cold and untold suffering toward a future that promised little more than indentured servitude.

The grounding of the Golden Venture, the latest and worst in many incidents in a booming trade in human desperation, illuminated what immigration officials call a rising tide of Chinese bound for the United States in ships controlled by criminals who charge up to $35,000 a head and offer little in return but passage in an unsafe, dirty ship and a bit of advice: Request political asylum if you are caught.

The ship ran aground at about 2 a.m. after it nosed up near the Rockaway Peninsula off a deserted beach, officials said. It was unclear if the grounding was deliberate or accidental, but it touched off panic among many of the passengers.

Witnesses told of scenes out of Joseph Conrad: the ship suddenly dead in the water, hull plates groaning as if coming apart, cries from the bridge, feet running on decks and ladders, figures rushing up out of holds and hatches to the rails, the lights of a city representing freedom twinkling like beacons in the distance, then the silhouettes of people diving into the sea.

"They were jumping off, climbing down the ladders, trying to swim," said Michael Penna, a firefighter who was among the first rescuers on the scene. "But the current kept pulling them toward the jetties. They were knocking against the jetties. They didn't have much clothes on, just short-sleeved shirts and pants. Hypothermia set in. By the time they got to shore, they couldn't even stand."

At least five refugees drowned, their bodies washing ashore. Two others died later of heart attacks. Survivors -- some clad in ragged suits, others in jeans or underwear, and many clutching plastic bags of belongings -- came out of the thundering, 53-degree surf shivering with cold. Some waded or crawled in, some rode plastic-jug floats. Purple with exposure, they collapsed on the beach.

No SOS had been sounded by the ship, but two members of the U.S. Park Service Police patrolling the Gateway National Recreation Area spotted the freighter and alerted the Coast Guard and other authorities.

As police officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel arrived on the beach, gray and blue blankets were thrown around the huddled refugees, most of them young men who sat quietly, looking miserable, listening to the surf. Eighteen were taken to hospitals in Brooklyn and Queens in serious condition, most for treatment of injuries, exposure and exhaustion.

Meanwhile, Coast Guard and police boats went alongside the Golden Venture and took off everyone who remained on board, more than 100 refugees and the 13 crew members, all Indonesian nationals. Officials said the crew, including the 45-year-old captain, Amir H. Lumban Tobing, would be charged with smuggling and other federal offenses, and that the ship would be confiscated.

Police Officer Peter Moy, who interviewed 30 to 40 refugees, recalled: "They said they had been in the boat two to four months. They were kept down in the hold. It was dark. They were fed only once a day or every two days. They said they were treated poorly and never took showers. One person said he got a meal once a day, but it was very little -- just rice."

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