A freighter full of Chinese immigrants dumped its illegal cargo at a historic Army fort near the Golden Gate Bridge early Monday before being seized by the Coast Guard in a dramatic eight-hour chase across the open sea.
Apparently attempting to slip into San Francisco, 169 refugees on the ship Pai Chang were instead arrested shortly after touching American soil. An unknown number of additional passengers fled on foot and were being sought Monday night.
After boldly unloading the immigrants before dawn on a pier near the 1850s-era Ft. Point, the Pai Chang quickly steamed out of the Golden Gate. Three Coast Guard vessels and two helicopters gave chase, and the freighter finally stopped 70 miles offshore.
"They ignored radio calls all day, but finally realized we were serious and turned back," said Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Rick Woods. The ship was escorted to a port in Vallejo where it is likely to be impounded after an investigation.
Monday's episode is the latest in a dramatic upswing of Chinese smuggling cases, federal authorities said. In 1991, only 20 Chinese immigrants were seized in U.S. waters by the Coast Guard, the lead agency for at-sea enforcement of immigration laws. So far this year, the number stands at 1,379.
Last month, the Coast Guard captured 199 undocumented Chinese immigrants on a boat off San Diego. In December, a freighter dubbed "the misery ship" because of its filthy hold was seized outside San Francisco Bay, leading to the arrest of 180 Chinese immigrants.
The largest seizure this year occurred 1,500 miles southeast of Hawaii, where the Coast Guard captured 527 Chinese nationals bound for the United States on a boat in distress.
David Ilchert, district director of the INS for Northern California, said the Mandarin-speaking Chinese arrested Monday apparently agreed to pay $20,000 apiece for the voyage. They had been at sea about two months, but it was not immediately known where their journey had begun.
The arrested immigrants, nine women and 160 men, will be held in an undetermined federal detention center pending political asylum hearings or other proceedings to determine their fate, Ilchert said.
The Pai Chang's crew members, who were believed to be Burmese or Taiwanese, will be investigated on charges of smuggling and could face up to five years in prison, officials said.
Though it was ultimately foiled, Ilchert called Monday's smuggling attempt "beautifully executed" and noted that it was the first he knows of in which a freighter actually pulled into port and unloaded its cargo. Typically, a smaller boat will rendezvous with the mother ship to ferry passengers ashore.
"They just zipped into the harbor, did a circle and were gone in less than an hour," Ilchert said. "It was something."
However, the ship had been spotted on radar as it entered the Golden Gate. When it pulled up to Ft. Point about 1:15 a.m., the Coast Guard alerted park police in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area at the Presidio of San Francisco, who found the immigrants in a parking lot awaiting rides.
Most were arrested there, but others were chased onto a golf course and into residential neighborhoods nearby.
The Chinese appeared to be in good health, authorities said. Most were young adults, and they carried small rucksacks of belongings.
David Rice, a former ranger at Ft. Point who works in the Presidio's public affairs office, said the pier where the Pai Chang landed has great military significance.
"That's where they would launch mines to protect the Golden Gate from intruders during World War II," he said. "It's kind of interesting that the aliens would land there."