Coming to America By Coal Freighter A Letter From the Gloucester County Jail

GLOUCESTER, VA. — Gloucester, Va. -- Economic interdependence of a sort brought Moises Arredondo, Renaldo Hernandez, Carlos Ordonez and Julio Cesar Soriano to this historic little county seat deep in Tidewater Virginia.

It was not the textbook kind of interdependence, in which Japanese investors set up a plant to marry their advanced technology with Gloucester County's relatively low labor costs and proximity to East Coast markets.


This was the economy of despair -- despair so profound that the four young men from the Dominican Republic risked and nearly lost their lives last week as stowaways on a coal freighter for a chance to earn American dollars.

The four stowed away in a compartment in the bowels of a coal ship bound for Baltimore. None knew where the ship was headed, except to the United States.


And that was enough, the mere promise of a shot at the dollar. They all imagined themselves in New York, the world's biggest Dominican city outside Santo Domingo, as illegal immigrants sheltered by many friends and relatives already there.

Instead, the four ended up struggling to stay alive in the middle BTC of the Chesapeake Bay, miles from the nearest shore, with the flickering red lights of a buoy seemingly just beyond their grasp as they swam and shouted for help, to passing ships and to God.

After their dramatic and improbable rescue -- a bay pilot chanced to step out on a ship's bridge to gaze on the phosphorescent waters and heard their cries -- they wound up here, in a county of 34,000 with only a dozen stoplights. New York, it isn't.

They faced deportation to the Dominican Republic, a quick plane ride back to Santo Domingo and poverty.

Three of the stowaways spent the night in the little Gloucester County Jail and told a reporter their stories in Spanish. (Moises Arredondo, the oldest and most battered of the four, spent the night at the local hospital.)

A church group brought the stowaways clothing. The jail keepers dished out food, served up hot showers and arranged for interviews.

The story of the young Dominicans' rescue was dramatic. But so was the story of their economic despair. It's a story told all over Latin America, indeed all over the Third World.

Carlos Ordonez, 26, earned up to $10 a day as a diesel mechanic in his native Santo Domingo -- when he could find work. One year short of a high school diploma, he was the most educated of the group.


Julio Cesar Soriano, 21, made $12 a week working in a shoe factory. He went home at night to a three-room wooden shack in Hatomayor del Rey that he shared with 14 family members.

Renaldo Hernandez, 19, was a second-grade dropout from San Pedro de Macoris, a Dominican town better known for populating major league baseball with shortstops. He got occasional jobs ,, repairing tires or washing cars.

Ah yes, baseball. The stowaways ticked off the names of their Dominican heroes. "George Bell. Pedro Guerrero. Julio Cesar Franco. Tony Pena. Cabeza Fernandez," as the Padres' Tony is known in the Dominican Republic, "because he has a big head."

Millionaires all, and not just in Dominican pesos, but in American dollars. Heroes less perhaps for their bats than for their bank accounts.

Carlos Ordonez wanted his shot at the American dollar. On the docks of Puerto Plata, he said he paid the equivalent of $100 in Dominican pesos to a man named Roberto to board the Havtjeld, a Norwegian-flag coal ship.

From the water one night, they threw a grappling hook attached to a rope into the compartment housing the propeller and rudder shaft in the ship's stern. Mr. Ordonez climbed up and disappeared into the ship's underbelly.


First aboard, Mr. Ordonez spent 11 nights in the hot, noisy little compartment. The other three Dominicans boarded the ship the same way several days later in San Pedro de Macoris, where it made another port call. By the time the Havtjeld set sail Sept. 5, Mr. Ordonez's supplies -- bread, salami, chocolate and water -- were nearly exhausted. The others' meager rations, mainly bread and water, soon dwindled.

The compartment was sealed off from the ship by a hatch that opened only from above, Mr. Ordonez said. So while the conditions were almost unbearable, they had no choice but to endure.

To go to the bathroom, Mr. Ordonez said, the stowaways had to shimmy down a rope and hang over the ocean water. "If we fell in the water, we were lost," he said, "but one could never think of that, only in the future."

Renaldo Hernandez said he tried to catch a little sleep, drenched in sweat, on the compartment's steel floor.

"Hunger, thirst, despair," was his summary of the voyage. "We talked and read the Bible. I was afraid that the ship was going somewhere else and that the food would give out, and I was afraid to die so young."

Three days before they dove into the cold bay waters, the food did give out. Then, the bay waters rose up the shaft and the stowaways -- fearing they would suffocate or drown -- dove in, risking being mangled by the rudder or sucked in by the turbulence.


Nearly as miraculous as their rescue was the fact that, already weakened by lack of food, they withstood three hours struggling to stay afloat in the bay.

Yet the Dominican stowaways told their story matter-of-factly. Their notion of the tragedy that could have befallen them seemed as vague as their dreams of prosperity in New York.

When one lives in despair, hustling money and food from day to day with no reasonable expectation that the future will bring anything but trouble, it is all apparently just part of the cost of doing business.

More remarkably, all three said they would certainly try again to reach the United States. Life on the Caribbean island their country shares with Haiti was hopeless, they agreed.

"You can only afford to eat meat there maybe once a month. If things don't change, we will have civil war there," Carlos Ordonez said almost hopefully.

Julio Cesar Soriano said he couldn't face going back to his family's three-room shack. "I want a little house for my mother, and I want a place for me to live. Someplace that's my own," he said.


Providence had seen them through one desperate exercise in economic interdependence, and they said they were ready for another.

"You know what it says on the dollar bill, don't you?" Mr. Ordonez asked. "In God We Trust."

James Bock is a reporter for The Sun.