Homeland security authorities descended on a ship at Port Newark after U.S. Coast Guard officials heard sounds coming from a cargo container area below deck during a routine inspection early Wednesday.
Officials suspected there may have been stowaways on board, but were not certain which container was the source of the noise. Inspectors began checking containers in the morning, and the search was expected to continue overnight.
The ship, called the Ville d'Aquarius, originated in the United Arab Emirates on May 30 and stopped in ports in Pakistan, India and Egypt before arriving in the U.S.
Coast Guard spokesman Charles Rowe told NBC 4 New York that the agency was doing a routine boarding at 3 a.m. as the ship was anchored in Ambrose Channel, the main shipping channel serving the Port of New York and New Jersey.
Inspectors "heard sounds coming from one of the containers in the hold consistent with the sounds of people inside," Rowe said.
Numerous agencies were alerted and the cargo containers were shifted and brought onto the pier for examination. By evening, one-third of the containers in question had been examined, with nothing found, officials said.
Drew Barry, of the Sandy Hook Pilots Association, said he boarded the vessel about 20 miles offshore to help pilot it into port.
"There are at least 30 to 40 containers on top of the hatch cover, and I don't know how many more below it," Barry said. "If there are people down there, with no food and water for days, they're probably pretty desperate by now."
Shipping containers are steel boxes, usually 8 feet wide and 8- to 10-feet high and either 20- or 40-feet long, designed to withstand the rigors of the high seas and are strong enough to be stacked several high.
They normally can be opened only from the outside. There's hardly any ventilation.
Rowe said it has been taking about eight minutes to check each container — unloading it off the ship, opening it up and X-raying it if necessary.
Officials say they get stowaways in New York harbors about six times a year.
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