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After a hunt for suspected stowaways turned out to be a bust, officials Thursday were left with a puzzle: What caused the mysterious knocking sound that spurred a daylong, multiagency search aboard a cargo vessel at the Port of Newark?
"Typically, if there’s evidence on board, we will find a stowaway. This time we didn’t," said Lt. Fannie Wilks, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Coast Guard’s New York command center.
The "lengthy and exhaustive inspection" of the Ville D’Aquarius ended at 10 p.m. Wednesday after officers, dogs and X-ray machines were used to search 163 containers on the ship, according to a Department of Homeland Security statement issued Thursday morning.
Asked if the knocking sound could have been a mechanical noise, Wilks declined to get into specific scenarios.
"We’ve evaluated different options, but we don’t know what it is and we don’t want to speculate," she said. Wilks also said the matter is closed and would not be further investigated within the U.S. Coast Guard.
Tony Migliorini, who supervises 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 told The Star-Ledger. 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."
The stowaway story took on a life of its own early Wednesday when erroneous reports spread online that two dozen Pakistanis, possibly dead, were inside one of the ship’s nearly 2,000 containers. Television crews and reporters flocked to the port, watching for hours as the search unfolded but no smuggled humans emerged.
Agencies involved in the effort included U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement — specifically Homeland
Security Investigations — the Coast Guard and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, according to the Homeland Security statement.
Anthony Bucci, Homeland Security spokesman, Thursday said he had no immediate comment on the cost of the search.
Patrick Foye, executive director of the Port Authority, said the search would result in some police overtime costs, but he did not have the specifics on the figure. He also said the search caused minor disruptions to business at the port.
The vessel began its voyage nearly a month ago in the United Arab Emirates, then stopped at ports in Pakistan, India and Egypt before crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
The knocking noise that sparked concerns was first heard at around 3 a.m. Wednesday during a random sweep of the ship in waters near Sandy Hook, according to accounts provided by the Coast Guard.
Following routine, officers tapped in a container area of the ship, Wilks said.
"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.
Now, workers for the Ville D’Aquarius will reseal and reload the searched containers, take off the containers that were meant to be delivered to Newark and bring on new cargo. The ship, owned by Global Ship Lease, is set to sail at noon today for its intended port of Norfolk, Va.
Global Ship Lease spokesman Darrell Wilson did not comment on any expense to the company caused by the incident.
As for the noises on the Ville D’Aquarius, he said, that mystery may stay with the ship.
"We don’t know what sounds the Coast Guard may have heard," Wilson said. "So we have no way of knowing where the sounds might have originated from."
Read more in U.S. Seizes Cargo Ship Suspected Of Carrying Stowaways.