An apparent smuggling attempt was foiled Sunday when a U.S. customs officer spotted a piece of clothing protruding from under a truck crossing the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge.
Four young Chinese women were secured beneath the truck, which was traveling from Canada to the United States, said John J. Ingham, director of the Buffalo district office of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
"They were tucked up on the frame on the underside of the truck," Ingham said. "Two were very weak because they had been exposed to fumes" as well as the cold.
Lewiston emergency medical technicians treated the two young women, who were then taken to a local hospital to be checked out further before processing by immigration officials.
All four women, ranging in age from about 19 to 30, and the male driver of the truck were questioned by the agency before being detained in the Erie County Holding Center.
"We needed an interpreter to speak with the women," said Winston Barrus, deputy district director of the agency, who said it is believed all four of the women are from China.
The U.S. attorney has authorized prosecution, Barrus noted.
Arraignment is expected this afternoon in U.S. Magistrate's Court for the driver, who is charged with alien smuggling, and the four aliens, who are charged with attempting to enter the country without inspection.
"Generally, people being smuggled in (to the United States) are more in the nature of victims than part of a conspiracy," Ingham noted. "Generally, they are desperate, the victims of someone who doesn't have their interest in mind, has a very callous attitude, an indifference to human life."
According to Barrus, "Illegal aliens come in all different sizes and shapes. Some are simply people looking for a better life. Others have criminal backgrounds. This is why it is so important to prevent people from entering illegally."
Sunday's apparent smuggling incident took place at "about 4:30 or 5 a.m.," Ingham said. The vehicle was a "box truck," he added. The truck reportedly had a Rochester address on the side of it.
Although he would not give names, addresses or ages of the five individuals, Ingham said the driver was "also Oriental but I believe not Chinese."
A "significant incident report" will be filed, Ingham noted.
A copy will go to Washington D.C.
Barrus credited the customs officer who spotted a piece of clothing protruding from under the truck as its driver attempted to cross the bridge.
"She may have saved some lives," he noted, declining to give the officer's name. "Two of the women under the truck we were very concerned about. They were not responsive, apparently overcome by fumes."
Barrus recalled a December 1988 smuggling incident when four aliens -- three Malaysian adults and a 6 1/2 -year-old Chinese girl -- drowned when the cheap vinyl raft in which they were being ferried to the U.S. capsized in the Niagara River.
In time, authorities were able to track down the Vietnamese refugee who was behind the smuggling operation and a number of other river crossings that began at the end of York Road in Queenston -- not far from the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge.