Three stowaways died and seven others were critically dehydrated in a scorching two-day journey from the Dominican Republic in a nearly airless cargo container.
Crew members of the container ship Pampero heard frantic pounding coming from the inside of the container at 11 a.m. Tuesday but could do nothing for the dying men until they reached the cargo cranes of the Port of Palm Beach three hours later.
When rescuers broke into the container, they found seven men, all but two unconscious, huddled around a 6- by 10-inch air hole they had cut in the floor.
Two bodies were a few feet away, buried in piles of clothing. Later, a third body was found wedged near the front of the container.
The dead apparently suffocated, said Arthur Bullock, agent in charge of the U.S. Border Patrol's West Palm Beach office.
"They were all jammed in there, and it was a tightly sealed container," Bullock said.
"The seal cut off any air flow, and that, coupled with the fact that there were 10 people in there drawing air, made for a lack of oxygen."
None of the men had been identified late Tuesday.
"The one who could talk was barely able to speak," said Darrel Donatto, division chief at Riviera Beach Fire Rescue.
Investigators found crackers and water jugs near the men. But the temperature inside the box was stifling.
"It was easily over 100 degrees," said Riviera Beach detective Pat Galligan. "They ran out of oxygen."
Nine of the stowaways were from the Dominican Republic; one of the survivors is a Cuban national.
The container, being transported by the Tropical Shipping Company, was stuffed from floor to ceiling with ready-to-wear clothing destined for retail stores.
It was atop other containers, each 65 feet long and 10 feet high, stacked liked children's blocks aboard a cargo ship as long as a city block.
The Pampero left Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic at 8:48 p.m. Sunday, Bullock said, and arrived at the Port of Palm Beach shortly after 3 p.m. Tuesday.
The gruesome scene was similar to an incident in July 1991, when six of nine stowaways in a Tropical container from the Dominican Republic perished in 130-degree heat.
Bullock and Galligan are investigating whether a smuggling ring may be responsible for the stowaways.
Only the floor was made of wood; the sides and roof are steel. And when the container was stacked on top of another, the air coming into the hole was nearly blocked out.
"We get stowaways from time to time, and sometimes we find evidence that they've been there, like holes in the containers," Bullock said.
The Border Patrol intercepted 34 stowaways at the Port of Palm Beach last year, he said.
"Why do people try to swim the Rio Grande, or hide out in cargo holds in airplanes?" Bullock asked. "People are desperate to come here."