The story began around 3AM Wednesday morning, when a US Coast Guard boarding team, conducting a random sweep on the container ship Ville D’Aquarius, near Sandy Hook, just outside New York harbor, heard a knocking sound which appeared to be coming from somewhere in the ship’s containerized cargo. The Ville D’Aquarius is a 1996 built CMA-CGM container ship with a 2,807 TEU capacity. When she was boarded she was reported to have had aboard 2,039 containers.
Coast Guard spokeswoman Fannie Wilks reported that the officers tapped in a container area of the ship. “They heard tapping back and it continued for six hours, but it became weaker and weaker, the sound, until it went away,” Wilks said. The tapping began to fade, she said, as the boat came into the Port of Newark. “That’s when the tapping finally went away, and they didn’t hear anything back,” she said. Coast Guard spokesman Charles Rowe said, “They heard sounds that were consistent with people being inside a container.”
When the report of possible stowaways came in, a multi-agency task force swung into action. In addition to the Coast Guard and the Port Authority, teams from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, with assistance from ICE -Homeland Security Investigations began to search the ship using X-Ray machines and K-9 units as well as officers on the ship and the dock. Ambulances were standing by to take any sick or injured stowaways for medical care. The search focused on the containers closest to where the knocking had been heard.
Television crews and reporters flocked to the port. The Ville D’Aquarius had sailed from the United Arab Emirates on May 30, with stops in Pakistan, India and Egypt. Soon news reports had identified the stowaways as Pakistani. Michelle Krupa, a civilian spokeswoman for the Coast Guard New York Command Center, is quoted as saying, “There’s rumors going around that there’s 20 to 25 Pakistanis, but we do not have that report.” One headline read, “US Officials Find Up To 60 Pakistani Stowaways on Cargo Ship.” The report of 60 stowaways was repeated widely across the internet.
Several sources also included a photo of an Egyptian man, Asem Haroon, who was found in a Newark cargo shed a year ago and who claims to have stowed away on an Italian ship. When he was found, the New York Post noted, “Sources could not say whether he was suspected of being a member of the Taliban or al Qaeda, although it does not appear he was on any international terror “watch list.“” The Daily Mail goes on to point out that, “Port Newark is close to several oil refineries, a known al-Qaeda target.”
The story had all the right elements – 60 Pakistanis, terrorism, al-Qaeda, strategic targets. The only thing that it lacked was, well, actual stowaways.
After searching 160 containers from the Ville D’Aquarius, the authorities found no stowaways, nor any sign of stowaways. What did the Coast Guard boarding party hear? As reported by the Star Ledger:
Tony Migliorini, supervisor at the Coast Guard’s Oklahoma City-based Container Inspection Training and Assistance Team, said it’s not unusual to hear weird noises on a container vessel, especially when it’s on the water. “Anything inside the container that is not secured can move around and bang while the ship is moving.” He added echoes are also a possibility. “They put containers in holds below deck in metal rooms that have lots of echoes,” he said. “There’s certainly difficulty isolating a sound there.”
Thanks to Phil Leon for contributing to this post.