Whether the freighter, Golden Venture, had been at a customary drop-off point for illegal immigrants when it went aground was unclear, police said. Many of the passengers who reached Rockaway peninsula beach in the borough of Queens - just a few miles from the Statue of Liberty - were clutching a few belongings in plastic bags, suggesting they had been prepared to swim ashore.
'They were jumping off, climbing down the ladders, trying to swim,' said a firefighter, one of the first to arrive after the ship ran aground at 2am. 'But the current kept pulling them . . . toward the jetties.
'They didn't have much clothes on, just short-sleeved shirts and pants,' he said on local television. 'Hypothermia set in. By the time they got to shore, they couldn't even stand.' Passengers collapsed on the beach, purple with cold before rescuers could get them blankets.
More than 1,800 Chinese illegal immigrants, most of them arriving by sea, have been detained by US Immigration since the start of the year. A shipload of Asian illegal immigrants disembarked in California last week and most of them were arrested.
Some passengers from the Golden Venture told rescuers they had paid up to dollars 30,000 ( pounds 20,000) for a place on the ship, reported to have started its voyage in Fukien province in China. The freighter's Indonesian captain and crew were arrested.