NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The Coast Guard says its officers heard knocking for about two hours when they tapped on a bulkhead of the cargo ship being searched for possible stowaways at New Jersey's Port Newark.
Coast Guard spokesman Charles Rowe says the team that boarded The Ville D'Aquarius knocked on a bulkhead, or partition, of the ship early Wednesday morning as a routine security check and heard knocks back. But he says the team couldn't pinpoint where the sound was coming from. He says the return knocks ended after about two hours.
By midday, federal authorities had inspected about 80 of the 200 containers they believe could possibly be carrying stowaways.
Rowe says it has been taking about eight minutes to check each container — taking it off the ship, opening it up and X-raying it if necessary.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
Dock workers rushed to unload stacked containers inside a cargo ship that arrived in New Jersey from the Middle East on Wednesday after Coast Guard officials heard knocking from one during a routine inspection, suggesting stowaways might be on board.
More than a dozen ambulances and law enforcement officials met the 850-foot vessel when it docked early Wednesday at Port Newark, one of the nation's busiest ports. Large mechanical cranes began unloading containers from the ship.
By midday Wednesday, all but one ambulance had quietly left the pier. Coast Guard spokesman Charles Rowe said officials have inspected 80 of the 200 containers authorities believe could be carrying people. The ship has 2,000 containers altogether.
The Coast Guard team had boarded the ship outside New York Harbor early Wednesday as the ship prepared to dock, Rowe said. The officers were knocking on containers during a sound check, "and they knocked on this one and they heard a knocking back," spokeswoman Michelle Krupa told the Star-Ledger of Newark.
The team followed protocol and didn't open the container at sea in order to control the situation, Rowe 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."
He estimated late Wednesday morning that it would take several hours, if not much of the day, to get to the part of the ship, below the hatch cover, where officials heard banging noises.
The container, which a manifest said was carrying machine parts to Norfolk, Va., was loaded in India, Rowe said.
The ship began its voyage May 30 in the United Arab Emirates, then made one stop in Pakistan and two stops in India. Its last port before Newark was in Egypt on June 15.
Speaking at an unrelated news conference, Andrew McLees, special agent in charge of Homeland Security investigations for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the ship's origin and itinerary prompted the initial search.
"The routing of the ship and the ports of call was what led to the actions," McLees said.
Michael Ward, the FBI's top official in New Jersey, said the response was appropriate given the port's vulnerability. The area is considered a prime potential target for terrorists.
"You're going to get a response like this any time you have these types of facts," Ward said. "It was an appropriate response which we did out of an abundance of caution."
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