By Eduardo Munoz
NEWARK, New Jersey (Reuters) - A lengthy search of a cargo ship seized at a New Jersey port ended late on Wednesday with no sign of the stowaway passengers it was suspected of carrying after making stops in India and Egypt to pick up freight, U.S. authorities said.
The vessel was impounded after customs agents reported hearing sounds made by people coming from inside a container beneath a stack of several others in the ship's cargo hold, authorities said.
But the U.S. Coast Guard indicated in a brief statement Wednesday night that no unauthorized passengers were detected.
"The search has been concluded," Coast Guard spokesman Charles Rowe said. "Nothing of significance was found. Port and ship have returned to normal operations."
Officials could not be reached early on Thursday for more details. The search began early Wednesday morning.
According to the ship's manifest, the suspicious container had been loaded onto the vessel on June 7 in India and was carrying machine parts bound ultimately for Norfolk, Virginia.
Rowe said authorities determined the storage crate in question could not be opened in the hold, and instead began methodically unloading the ship's cargo in order to reach it.
At least seven ambulances waited most of the day on Wednesday outside Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal, where dozens of containers were moved to the dock for inspection. Authorities knocked on the outside of each of the red, blue or gray containers, listening for noises, and opened and searched them.
The ship, identified as the Cyprus-flagged vessel Ville D'Aquarius, was stopped at 3 a.m. EDT (0700 GMT) on Wednesday at a standard checkpoint for incoming ships - the Ambrose Anchorage below the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York Harbor, Rowe said.
"The boarding team went aboard for a routine inspection. They heard sounds that were consistent with people being inside a container," Rowe said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, as well as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the port, were notified. Federal authorities then rushed to receive the ship at the Newark dock, Rowe said.
The ship began its journey in the United Arab Emirates on May 30 and made a stop in Qasim, Pakistan, on June 2. It then made two stops in India, at Nhava Sheva on June 5 and Mundra on June 7, where the container in question was taken onboard, according to the manifest, Rowe said.
The ship stopped again in Egypt on June 15, then headed for Newark, with its final destination slated as Norfolk, Rowe said.
(Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg, Chris Francescani and Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Vicki Allen)