- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 27, 2012

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Coast Guard officials reported hearing banging noises coming from a container Wednesday during a routine inspection of a cargo ship from the Middle East, leading them to believe stowaways might be inside.

Ambulances and law enforcement officials met the 850-foot-long vessel when it docked at Port Newark, one of the nation’s busiest ports. Large mechanical cranes began unloading containers from the ship.

The Coast Guard team boarded the ship outside New York Harbor early Wednesday as the ship prepared to dock, Coast Guard spokesman Charles Rowe said. The officers were knocking on containers during a sound check, “and they knocked on this one and they heard a knocking back,” spokeswoman Michelle Krupa told the Star-Ledger of Newark.

The team followed protocol and didn’t open the container at sea in order to control the situation, Coast Guard spokesman Charles Rowe said.

Drew Barry of the Sandy Hook Pilots Association said he boarded the vessel about 20 miles offshore to help pilot it into port.

“There are at least 30 to 40 containers on top of the hatch cover, and I don’t know how many more below it,” Barry said. “If there are people down there, with no food and water for days, they’re probably pretty desperate by now.”

He estimated late Wednesday morning that it would take several hours, if not much of the day, to get to the part of the ship below the hatch cover where officials heard banging noises.

The container, which a manifest said was carrying machine parts to Norfolk, Va., was loaded aboard the Ville D’Aquarius in India, Mr. Rowe said.

The ship began its voyage May 30 in the United Arab Emirates, then made one stop in Pakistan and two stops in India. Its last port before Newark was in Egypt on June 15.

The Department of Homeland Security said in a statement Wednesday that officials are conducting a “thorough investigation of the vessel.”

Customs and Border Protection agents planned to open the container once it is unloaded.