Even though they now knew how to get on a ship to Canada, Radu Codrescu, 30, and his two Romanian buddies, Paul and Claudiu, still had one huge risk to consider: that the captain of a transatlantic would throw them overboard if he discovered them. Hubert, the port security officer who had showed them how to elude the guards and board a ship, told them that he knew of captains who threw the stowaways into the frozen ocean waters rather than pay the high fines that the Canadian authorities imposed on those who brought people into their country illegally.
Around 10:00 am on January 19, 1993, the three Romanians thanked Officer Hubert and left the coffee shop in Antwerp, Belgium where they had spent the morning learning from the officer. They drove Radu’s beat-up Mercedes back to a friend’s house in Liège for the final preparations before putting Hubert’s plan into action. They searched that day’s newspapers for information about which ships left and for what destination and they found the one: OOCL Challenge leaving for Montréal that very afternoon. The port’s work shift changed at 2:00 pm and that was when Radu and his friends were going to make their move.
In Liège, the three men bought denim overalls, the kind that harbor workers wore.
“We bought our overalls,” Radu Codrescu said, “and then we treated them really badly, stomped on them, poured oil and paint, trying to make them look used. We didn’t want to walk among port workers in shiny new overalls, that’s for sure.”
At 1:30 pm, they drove back into the port of Antwerp, but realized they couldn’t find the main entrance. Radu had been around that place for weeks, but he only got in through holes in the fences and only got out in police vans with tinted windows. They followed the signs and found a parking lot. On a whim, Radu picked up the toolbox he kept in his car’s trunk. He was going to carry it around, to look more like a worker. He also picked up his cigarettes and lighter and some cash, but forgot his wallet with his ID in it inside the glove compartment.
The three men walked around, looking for the entrance. After a while, they found themselves in front of the Harbormaster’s Office, still looking for the workers’ entrance or the guards’ quarters or any kind of gate into the port area. It was getting close to 2:00 pm, so they split, looking for a way to get in. Radu went around the Harbormaster’s building, while the other two went inside, one on the first floor, one on the top floor.
Radu found the entrance first, behind the building, and from there he saw the open area where the workers were waiting for their buses. Because the port’s heavy equipment is hazardous—cranes, trains, trucks—people were moved around with buses. Radu went back for the other two, but found only Claudiu and signaled to him to follow him to the bus loading zone. The buses were coming. They had to hurry. Radu passed by a port worker who asked him something in Flemish, but Radu gripped the handle of his toolbox and didn’t stop to chat.
“Soon Claudiu came and stood next to me. When I turned my head, I saw Paul up in the window of the cafeteria, looking down at us. “I’m not coming,” he mouthed the words from up there. He shook his head. Fine! We let him be. After a while, I see Claudiu sidling away from me, his back to the wall, slowly taking steps to get around the corner.”
Hubert’s words had scared Radu’s companions after all. There was a chance that they would get on a ship that day, only to drown in a frozen ocean, soon after. Radu struggled to make a decision while a bus pulled in at the curb. Maybe his family would never hear back from him. Maybe he would be in Montréal in ten days’ time and his family would too, soon after. Take the chance or go back, like his friends?
Workers got off the bus and Radu got on, among the people in the new work shift.
“The bus stopped right in front of my ship, OOCL Challenge. I knew that the ships going to Canada were very well guarded, exactly because of people like me. But I couldn’t go back.”
Radu stood in front of an orange cargo ship with containers stacked up on six levels. Up on the deck, at the end of the boarding plank, a crew member guarded the only way to get on board that ship. Around him, contractors with walkie-talkies coordinated the cranes that lifted and stacked the containers, while workers secured the cargo in place with wire rope. Everybody was busy preparing the ship for its transatlantic journey, so Radu had only one man to worry about, the one guarding the boarding plank.
“I walked up on deck. I walked right by that sailor. I didn’t flinch and I didn’t look at him and he didn’t stop me, although I was the cleanest worker in the entire harbor. I carried my Mercedes toolbox under my arm, and it looked almost like a business case.”
Radu headed toward the back of the ship, away from the busy workers and sailors. That was almost too easy, Radu thought, but now he had another problem: with all the bustling people and moving gear on deck, he couldn’t figure out where the hatch to the hull was.
“Just as I was getting worried, I saw a little metal door, the way they have it in the movies. I went straight there and I opened that door. That was the entrance to the belly of the ship.”
The many decks and compartments and passageways make any ship look like a labyrinth to the untrained eye.
“I knew I needed to do something fast. I needed to hide, but I didn’t know where. In the sailors’ berths? I went up the stairs, as fast as I could, until I reached the sixth level and the main deck. There was nobody in sight. Everybody was outside manning containers. I looked down from the deck and I figured there was no place to hide there. So I figured I had to go back and down, below the deck. There were no stairs for below the deck, just an elevator. I called it, but it didn’t come. I figured I couldn’t just sit around, so I started looking again for a hiding place. I went through the kitchen and a lot of other different rooms on the deck level. I found a small closet and I got in there. After a while, I figured I couldn’t stay in that closet for long and I got out again.”
Through a narrow passageway, Radu reached the ship’s recreation room. There were Ping-Pong tables and Nintendo game consoles hooked to TVs, and a reading room, but still no place to hide. Then Radu saw a door. Behind it was a small storage room.
“Exactly what I needed. There was no light in there, the light bulb didn’t work. I saw some electric engines scattered on the floor, and a case with three shelves against the wall. I got up on the third shelf, and I covered myself with some cardboard so that nobody could see me if he opened the door. I was very tired. I hadn’t slept the night before, and I fell asleep right then and there. It was after 3:00 pm, as far as I could tell. I woke up around 9:00 pm, with the ship well on its way. I was rested, and everything was perfect.”
Fresh sea air came in through an open air vent. In the dark, Radu listened to the humming of the engines and felt the vibrations in the floor. He could hear the engine of the pilot boat that guided the ship through the rocky fjords, into the open waters of the North Sea. He listened until he fell asleep again. When he woke up, it was the next day, around noon. Radu was hungry, but he had no food with him. He hadn’t planned that far ahead the day before. He had his toolbox and his cigarettes and nothing else. He fell asleep again. He woke up in the evening with a burning thirst in his throat from the briny air coming through the vent. He had to get some water at least.
Radu opened the door to the recreation room. He saw the wet bar and the refrigerator and the door to the restroom, and no one around.
“As though it were a ghost ship. I went to the refrigerator and I grabbed a whisky bottle, a can of beer, a bottle of mineral water and I hurried back to my place. But there was no food there. So I drank everything, the whisky, the can of beer and the bottle of water and I got drunk I guess and I fell asleep again.”
When Radu woke up, around noon the following day, he realized he didn’t hear the pilot boat’s engine through the air vent anymore. That meant that they were out sailing on the Atlantic Ocean now. From the recreation room, he heard the sound of a Ping-Pong ball against paddles, tables and the floor. Radu cracked the door open and took a peek. He was dizzy from going without food for so long, and had a bit of a hangover. He forgot all the scary things he had heard from Hubert.
“I saw two Philippine sailors. They didn’t see me when I came out. There were two couches there and I sat on one of them, grabbed a magazine and started to read it. They kept playing until one of them stopped and gaped at me.”
“Who are you?” the sailor asked in English.
“Ah! Radu? Ok! What’s up with you here? Are you a sailor on this ship?”
“No,” Radu said.
“Wait here,” the sailors said.
One of them went to the telephone and called the captain. The First Mate came down a few minutes later.
“Do you speak English?” he asked Radu.
“I do, I do,” Radu said.
“What are you doing here? Where are you going?”
“Canada,” Radu said.
“Where did you come from? Were you hidden in a container?”
“No. I came out of that storage room over there.”
“Nobody checked that closet?” the First Mate said, looking around at the men who had crowded the rec room by then.
Radu didn’t want to get anybody in trouble. “Oh, they did,” he said, “but they didn’t see me because I was very well hidden in a box.”
“Ok,” the First Mate said. “Do you have an ID?”
“I don’t have any papers,” Radu said.
“What nationality are you?”
“Romanian,” Radu said.
“So what are you doing in Belgium, if you’re Romanian?”
“That’s where I lived recently,” Radu said.
“So you live in Belgium?”
“Um, no. I live in Germany,” Radu said.
“Ok,” the First Mate said, “take a piece of paper and write down everything you’ve just told me.”
“How did he get on board?” someone asked.
“I know when you got on board,” another man said. “I saw you. You walked right in front of me on the deck. I saw you! I know when you got on the ship, but I thought you were the electrician.”
That explained Radu’s lucky break: the ship’s fans weren’t working that day and the electrician was supposed to come fix them before OOCL Challenge could set sail.
“I thought at the time that they didn’t stop me because they might’ve taken me for an inspector of sorts. They were waiting for an electrician and I showed up, dressed cleaner than the others, like an electrician, with a toolbox under my arm, like an electrician, heading for the back of the ship, where their fans were, like the electrician that they were expecting.”
“You can sleep on this couch,” the First Mate said. “Two days have gone already, you have six more and you’ll be in Canada. Make yourself at home.”
“A sailor came and gave me a toothbrush, another brought me a shaver, another gave me some sheets, another gave me a pillow, and so forth. One guy came to me and asked me if I was hungry. He was the cook. Of course I was hungry after two days with no food! He took me with him to the kitchen.”
The cook wanted to hear every detail of Radu’s story.
“You didn’t hide in a container?” the cook said.
“Uh-oh,” Radu said. “You know, it’s possible that there’re two more people like me on this ship, somewhere, in a container.”
The cook called the Transmissions Officer and told him that two other Romanians might be on board.
“Oh, my God,” the officer said. “Who knows where they could be in hundreds of containers? We’re preparing for a storm now!”
If Paul and Claudiu were on board, they were not likely to survive the storm locked inside a shipping container.
Note: I met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington. In 2002, we sat down for a series of interviews about his past, and we continued our conversations in 2006 and in 2013. The series Our Borders is based on those interviews and on my own experience of growing up in Romania during the ’80s and the ’90s.