5 stowaways from Ecuador caught at marine terminal

Teen, others in 20s spent 2 weeks on deck in a cargo container

June 17, 1999|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

Five stowaways on a merchant ship, who spent two weeks inside a steel container lashed to the deck, were captured yesterday at the South Locust Point Marine Terminal, where they emerged thinking they had arrived in New York City.

One of the stowaways broke a leg and suffered internal injuries when he jumped off a stack of cargo containers. He was listed in critical condition at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

All five stowaways were from Ecuador, where they climbed inside the empty 40-foot steel box on a pier at the port of Guayaquil sometime in early June, federal officials said. They were loaded onto the ship by crane and stopped in several ports before reaching Baltimore.

The stowaways -- one 16 years old, the rest in their early 20s -- spent the entire voyage inside the truck-sized container. It was a "rag top," with steel walls and support beams but a cloth roof that allowed air inside, and it was stowed in the open air on deck rather than inside the hull.

The men entered the container through the roof with a supply of food and water that lasted about a week, officials said.

"They didn't quite ration themselves well enough, and they ran out of food," said Barry Tang, head of investigations for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Baltimore.

"They're OK, though, except for the one in the hospital. They were just hungry and dirty, and they smelled pretty bad."

An employee at the marine terminal notified U.S. customs agents at 10: 30 a.m. yesterday when he saw the injured stowaway on the ship and spotted another man running across the grounds.

Customs agents and port police captured three men outside the terminal on McComas Street near Key Highway and another inside the terminal.

"If there were any more [stowaways], we don't know about it," said Willard Somers, chief customs inspector in Baltimore. "We're still investigating."

Stowaways are a recurring problem for merchant vessels calling in the United States and other western nations. The International Maritime Organization, a group representing maritime workers worldwide, receives about three reports a week of stowaways somewhere on the globe.

The unexpected guests can create tremendous operational headaches for ships' agents and operators, who often must keep the vessel in port while the cases are investigated. In foreign ports, ships frequently are prohibited from discharging stowaways and must return to the port where they boarded or carry them until the ship reaches a port that will accept them.

Ship owners can face steep immigration penalties if they fail to report unexpected passengers, and some crew members have reportedly killed the stowaways rather than face the regulatory consequences of bringing them into a foreign port.

In 1996, the captain of the Taiwanese cargo ship Maersk Dubai allegedly set two Romanian stowaways adrift in a makeshift raft near Morocco, hoping to avoid immigration penalties at the ship's next stop in Canada. The men died at sea, and prosecutors in Taiwan indicted the captain last March for negligence.

Tang said the stowaways, whose names were not released, were fleeing Ecuador for New York City and emerged from the container because they thought they had arrived. According to schedules on the vessel operator's Web site, the ship called in New York two days before arriving in Baltimore early yesterday morning.

Stowaways are not entitled to any kind of judicial hearing under federal law, and Tang said they will likely be deported soon.

The injured man was in critical condition at Shock Trauma and was expected to remain there for several days, a hospital spokeswoman said. The other four men were being detained at the INS office in Canton. None was available for an interview.

The ship, a 617-foot container vessel, the CSAV Guayas, is operated by a Valparaiso, Chile-based ocean carrier called Compania Sud Americana de Vapores, or Chilean Line. The company operates several vessels between the U.S. East Coast and South America.

Federal official said yesterday that the ship would be allowed to leave port for its next stop in Charleston, S.C., but that its owners or operators could face fines.

Chilean Line is a regular customer at South Locust Point, a state-owned marine terminal in southern Baltimore.

Company officials would not comment on the case yesterday.

Pub Date: 6/17/99

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