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Tuesday, January 11, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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22 more arrested today

Seattle Times staff reporters

Immigration officials discovered 19 more Chinese nationals inside a container on a freighter that docked this morning at Pier 46 in Seattle.

Yesterday afternoon, officials found three dead people among a group of 18 Chinese stowaways on another freighter, the Cape May, that arrived in Seattle.

Those found this morning, all men and mostly young, were discovered about 5 a.m. on the Hanjin Yokohama, which stopped in Hong Kong before its arrival in Seattle, said Irene Mortensen, with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

They were in good physical condition and were taken to the Regional Justice Center in Kent, Mortensen said.

INS agents had been tipped off about people being smuggled aboard the two ships, Mortensen said. When the Cape May arrived at Terminal 18 on Seattle's Harbor Island yesterday afternoon, INS agents were waiting with federal marshals and dogs.

What they discovered was shocking: Two men and an elderly woman were found dead in the garbage-strewn interior of the container. The 15 others who survived the two-week voyage, all men, were barefoot and weak.

The canvas top of the container was shredded, said Bob Coleman, deputy director of the local INS office, although he didn't know whether those inside were trying to escape or simply get air.

"It's a sad thing," said Coleman. "These people were buried alive. Smugglers will kill people."

The 40-foot container had been in the ship's hold, stacked below four other containers.

Virginia Kice, an INS spokeswoman in California, said they may have died of exposure. She said the survivors told the INS that the three may have been dead a week.

"Unfortunately, our worst fears have come to pass," Kice said. "We've been trying to warn people all along about the very, very real and present danger in undertaking a voyage of this kind."

A wave of stowaways

The two ships in Seattle are the latest in a wave of freighters carrying Chinese stowaways to the West Coast. In the past 15 days, 136 Chinese on eight ships have been seized at ports in California, Washington and Vancouver, B.C. Four of those ships were intercepted in Seattle.

All of the Cape May survivors, said to be in their 20s and 30s, were taken to Harborview Medical Center. All showed visible signs of dehydration and malnutrition, said Larry Zalin, a hospital spokesman.

Today, two are in serious condition and five are in satisfactory condition at Harborview. The others are in INS custody.

Kice described the conditions in the Cape May container as extremely cold and said the only light came from flashlights.

"These containers are designed to carry machinery and cargo, not people," Kice said. "These people were effectively entombed."

Because the case involves deaths on the ocean, the FBI is taking over the Cape May case.

`They could hardly stand'

In some of the recent people-smuggling cases, federal agents were surprised to see some of the Chinese emerge from the containers wearing new clothing and holding cell phones. Some of the containers had fans and battery-powered lights.

Those who arrived this morning on the Yokohama were well-dressed, alert and appeared healthy, said Coleman.

Those who arrived aboard the Cape May were in far worse condition.

"Something clearly went wrong," he said. "It could be illness, high seas. Once people start to dehydrate and vomit it's increasingly hard to hydrate and things can deteriorate."

Crew members said the Cape May had encountered rough seas during its crossing from Hong Kong, leaving many of them seasick.

Roger Murray, a longshoreman who was at the scene yesterday when the Cape May container was opened, said the floor was covered with over a foot of garbage - mostly crushed cardboard boxes and ratty blankets - as well as boxes of vegetables and jugs of water.

Escorted by INS agents, the stowaways emerged wearing lightweight clothes, their hands clasped above their heads and their movements wobbly. Murray said some of them had to be helped by an agent on each side.

"The people looked like they had just been beaten, absolutely wiped out. They could hardly stand," he said.

Officials gave the migrants masks to prevent the spread of disease and asked them to sit on the dock. They did, huddled in the cold rain close to one another. One man gestured to bystanders that there were dead people inside.

Ambulances and firetrucks raced to the scene.

Kice said the Cape May is owned by NYK, a Japanese shipping company, and the container is owned by Yuk Yat Trading of Hong Kong. The ship left Singapore on Dec. 19, made a stop in Taiwan and left Hong Kong bound for Seattle on Dec. 27.

Calls to NYK's office in New Jersey were not returned.

Kice said authorities have not determined when the container was placed on the Cape May.

Kice said it was too soon to determine whether yesterday's smuggling incident is connected to previous cases. She does not think NYK is involved in the smuggling.

Allegedly boarded in Hong Kong

The Hanjin Yokohama departed Hong Kong on Dec. 27, with stops in Kaohsiung, China, and Kwangyang and Pusan in South Korea before arriving here.

Its shipping line, Hanjin Shipping, has local offices at Pier 46 and a main U.S. office in Paramus, N.J.

Mortensen said INS had no indication the shipping line is a part of the smuggling operation. "They're as concerned about this as we are," she said.

Mortensen said INS agents believed the stowaways all boarded in Hong Kong.

The stowaways found in Seattle this week all were believed to be from Fujian province, about 300 miles north of Hong Kong. Mortensen said it was undetermined whether the same smuggling operation was at the heart of both cases.

215 stowaways caught in a year

Mortensen said the stowaways from the Hanjin Yokohama were transported on the Regional Justice Center in Kent because the INS's Airport Way South detention building, which holds 175, is full.

INS officials don't know why there's been a spate of container-ship smuggling in the last two weeks, but said smuggling attempts often come in waves.

"We know we've been trying harder," Coleman said. "Part of it is hard work, a piece is probably luck."

He said the INS has apprehended 215 container stowaways in 14 vessels since last February, admitting that many more get through than INS catches.

The Cape May fatalities are the first in the recent container-smuggling cases on the West Coast.

"It's just horrible. I knew eventually we would see this."

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A wave of stowaways in shipping containers

Incidents of stowaways hiding in shipping containers to arrive at the West Coast in the past 11 months:

Feb. 4, 1999 - 11 stowaways found aboard a Beijing-based ship in Long Beach, Calif.

Feb. 15, 1999 - 21 found on the OOCL Britain in Long Beach, Calif.

Apr. 3, 1999 - 18-20 found aboard a Hong Kong-based ship in Tacoma.

Apr. 18, 1999 - 19 found on the SEALAND Navigator in Tacoma.

October 1999 - An unknown number of stowaways found on a cargo vessel in Long Beach, Calif.

Oct. 29, 1999 - An unknown number of stowaways found on the SEALAND Reliance in Tacoma. All escaped.

Dec. 28, 1999 - 21 found on the MS Sine Maersk in Long Beach, Calif.

Dec. 28, 1999 - 9 arrested on the OOCL Netherlands in Los Angeles.

Jan. 2 - 12 arrested aboard the OOCL Faith in Seattle; three suspected smugglers also arrested.

Jan. 2 - Another 18 stowaways arrested on the Zim Shekou in Long Beach, Calif.

Jan. 4 - 25 arrested aboard the California Jupiter in Vancouver, B.C.

Jan. 5 - 14 arrested on the Norasia Shamsha in Seattle.

Yesterday - Three dead and 15 surviving Chinese stowaways found in container on the freighter the Cape May, which arrived in Seattle the day before.

Today - 19 Chinese stowaways arrested in Seattle inside a container on the freighter Hanjin Yokohama, which docked this morning at Pier 46 in Seattle.

Source: Immigration and Naturalization Service

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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