A group of 180 Chinese refugees who spent six weeks crowded into the hold of a cargo ship littered with human waste was rescued at sea early Tuesday, brought to port here and held for deportation hearings.
The freighter full of refugees, part of a complicated smuggling operation, was forced to call the U.S. Coast Guard for help when it ran out of drinking water and ran low on fuel outside the Golden Gate.
A second boat was supposed to have met the 165-foot-long ship off the coast of California and ferry the passengers ashore 10 days ago but it never materialized, federal authorities said.
"The conditions on board are abominable," said Capt. Win Risinger, commander of San Francisco operations for the Coast Guard. He noted that "180 people have been living in one compartment for six weeks with no toilets."
Despite the squalor and lack of water, the passengers appeared to have suffered no serious health problems. Doctors said there were no cases of dehydration, and the passengers appeared remarkably vigorous.
After health inspectors checked the ship for the presence of contagious diseases, immigration agents wearing masks and latex gloves frisked the surprisingly well-dressed refugees. Their possessions were stuffed into plastic bags and the refugees were taken off the ship to shower and put on surplus clothing provided by the U.S. military.
James Christensen, supervisory agent for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said interviews with passengers yielded admissions "that they had all paid money to be smuggled into the United States."
"The passengers were in amazingly good spirits, even though they realized their attempt to be smuggled into the United States had been foiled," he said.
INS officials said the smuggling of Chinese is a seagoing trade that has mushroomed in the last 18 months. In Los Angeles, federal agents have uncovered several large smuggling operations recently, including one that involved a dramatic high-seas rescue of Chinese refugees aboard a sinking fishing boat in September.
Christensen said that Northern California has experienced similar problems and that cracking down on the smuggling of Asians is a high priority for the agency in San Francisco.
The ship began its voyage by picking up the passengers off the coast of the People's Republic of China on Nov. 6. The ship's Indonesian captain--and possibly the other eight crew members--are expected to face smuggling charges, according to Bill Tait, an assistant deputy director of the INS.
All of the passengers are citizens of the People's Republic of China, Tait said. He said the 16 women would be held at an Alameda County jail and the 164 men at an unnamed facility in Bakersfield. Three juveniles aboard, he said, would be placed with Chinese families in San Francisco.
"Being a person who is smuggled is not a crime," said Tait, noting that authorities expect the refugees to ask for political asylum. He said deportation hearings would be held to decide their fate.
The Indonesian captain, who was not identified, told authorities his ship was bound for Canada and had lost its way. Tait, however, said the freighter was definitely heading for San Francisco.
INS officials said the ship, a blue-and-white vessel called the Manyoshi Maru, probably will be seized. For now, however, it will remain docked at the Yerba Buena Island Coast Guard station in the middle of San Francisco Bay.
"It's basically a bucket with a hatch cover over it," said Andrew McDonough, deputy group commander for the Coast Guard. The freighter, which is owned by Taiwanese but registered in Honduras, is a type generally used to haul grain and other bulk goods.