Officials Say 'Knocking Sounds' Prompted Massive Precautionary Response

NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — The search for possible stowaways on board a cargo ship in New Jersey was still going on Wednesday night at Port Newark after authorities suspected that dozens of people were inside one of the containers on board.

The Coast Guard, law enforcement and other officials were inspecting the containers as part of the massive response. The ship can carry more than 2,000 cargo containers and the search could into the early morning hours of Thursday.

As of 11 p.m. Wednesday, nothing had been found.

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Cranes were unloading cargo from the ship Ville D’Aquarius, which pulled into port around 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, 1010 WINS’ Juliet Papa reported.

PHOTOS: Stowaway Situation At Port Newark

Coast Guard spokesman Charles Rowe said the Coast Guard boarded the 850-foot-long vessel while it was off shore around 3 a.m. as part of its standard operating procedure. That’s when crews heard something coming from one of the containers that sounded like people were inside, Rowe said.

“Noises of something along the line of knocking sounds, something that would indicate it was a person as opposed to just a random object moving around,” he said.

Containers stacked upon each other had to be unloaded so authorities could use X-ray machines, CBS 2’s Christine Sloan reported.

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According to the ship’s manifest, the container was loaded aboard the vessel in India and said it was carrying machine parts slated for Norfolk, Va.  The ship had been at sea for several weeks.  The Coast Guard said it originated in the United Arab Emirates, loaded in India and made stops in Pakistan and Egypt.

Regardless if anything is found, Long Island Rep. Peter King said the incident brings an important issue to the forefront.

“Hopefully it will be a signal to Congress and to other people in government that there is a terrorist threat and we have keep funding port security programs because the ports are very difficult to secure,” King told 1010 WINS.

Rowe said Coast Guard crews didn’t open the container at sea as a precaution.

Customs, Border Patrol agents and Port Authority police met the ship when it docked. Several ambulances and Hazmat crews also responded, but by midday Wednesday, only one ambulance was still on the pier.

Port Security has been a serious concern since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

In 2006, three men were arrested after they were caught running from a ship docked at Port Elizabeth. They somehow made their way on board a cargo ship in the Panama Canal.

In 1998, several stowaways were captured on a cargo ship from the Dominican Republic.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security also said in a statement that it is “conducting a thorough investigation of the vessel.”

King, who heads the House Homeland Security Committee, said he was told air space around Newark was closed as a precaution while authorities continued to search the ship.

“Obviously there is a concern about human life, but also, in the times in which we live, the first concern has to be terrorism,” he told CBS 2. “We have to assume the worst in these situations and hope for the best.”

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