The Golden Venture: 25 Years Later


Hurricane Sandy, the crash of Flight 587, September 11. These are just a few of the big events that have impacted Rockaway, and some of those days where everyone remembers where they were and what happened. June 6, 1993 is another one of those days that has stayed with many. It has been 25 years since the Golden Venture ran aground off of Fort Tilden in the early morning hours of that day, but some, especially those first on the scene, remember as if it just happened.

“I remember the blood-curdling screams and the hair standing on the back of my neck. I can hear it like it happened five minutes ago,” United States Park Police (USPP) Sergeant David Somma told The Rockaway Times.

Officer Somma would be the first rescuer to hear those screams of nearly 300 Chinese immigrants who were smuggled aboard the Golden Venture in a nightmare ordeal, with dreams of living a better life in America. For Somma and the others that shortly followed, the scene immediately became a rescue operation. It wasn’t until later that fellow responders would hear the radio call that suggested something much bigger was occurring in Fort Tilden that night—“The aliens are landing in Rockaway.”

Officer Somma was on patrol late that night, showing fellow officer Steve Divivier, who was working the overnight shift for the first time, the routine of patrolling Fort Tilden in the dark. However, nothing would be routine about June 6, 1993. “We were riding down Shore Parkway, inside Fort Tilden, heading towards the fishermen’s lot and I could see a light on top of a mast and it was really close to shore. I knew something wasn’t right,” Somma recalled. It was about 1:45 a.m. when Somma got out of the car and climbed over the dune to scope out the situation and was immediately alarmed by what he heard. “I could hear the people screaming and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. At the beginning, I couldn’t grasp the magnitude of the whole thing because it was so dark, that all you could see was the dark shape of the hull. I ran toward shore and got closer and saw people standing on the entire top deck and others beginning to jump into the water,” he said. Somma ran back to the car to get Divivier and to put the call in that mass backup would be needed, before returning to the beach and entering the water to retrieve the refugees. “I think it was about 20 minutes before anyone else showed up,” he said.

The next to arrive was fellow USPP officer Daniel McFadden, who was about 10 minutes away from ending his shift when he heard the call. “I had just finished taking off my uniform when a call came in that there were people screaming in the water. I told the dispatcher I was gonna head over there. I forgot to say I was getting off at 2 a.m.,” McFadden recalled.

When McFadden arrived at the scene, he was met with the same blood-curdling screams that Somma was introduced to. Somma and Divivier were already at work, pulling people out of the water. In the late night hours of early June, the water temperature was only 53 degrees. The air, not much warmer. But in the moment, none of that mattered. “The first time I ran into the water, I was chest deep and I finally grabbed a male and started pulling him to shore. I couldn’t understand why he was so heavy. These were small, emaciated people. As I’m pulling him in, the waves were crashing over my head. When I finally got to a spot where I could stand him up, I realized he had a rope tied around him, which was tied to a canvas bag with all his of belongings, wrapped in plastic. I finally got him to shore, and then we kept going back in as another person appeared through the darkness, and then another, and then another,” Somma said.

“We turn around and see the people that we had first brought to shore, opening up their bags, taking off their clothes, and changing into dry clothes, and then they started running over the dune,” McFadden said. After realizing that all of the people emerging from the water were Asian, what was occurring started to dawn on Officer McFadden. Just a week before, USPP officers in San Francisco had seized a boat full of Chinese immigrants under the Golden Gate Bridge. “This was a smuggling operation,” McFadden said. “We informed the dispatcher to call 911 and get as much help as he can.”

Somma said it was about an hour before anyone else showed up. “We kept asking the dispatcher, ‘where is everyone?’ He kept saying they notified everyone, they should be there,’” McFadden recalled. With only one road in and out of the Fort Tilden area, access was limited. As they awaited backup, no time could be wasted. “There were people all over the beach at this point. We were five blocks from where the first person came in and we started to get to the last jetty in Fort Tilden. We only had until that last jetty to get people out of the water. They would’ve just continued floating to Breezy Point,” McFadden  said. “It was at that time that we saw three people in the water, but further out. They were going to go past the jetty. Some of the officers that were living in Fort Tilden were notified and started to come down. One had a life ring. I said, ‘I’ll swim out to these people. If we don’t get them now, we’re never going to get them.’”

McFadden set out with the life ring that had limited rope attached to it. “I start swimming and it took me a while to get out past the waves. When I finally got to them, there were two females and a male. They didn’t speak English, but I told them to hold on to the life ring. They understood that. I started screaming at the guys on the beach to pull us back,” McFadden said. What he didn’t know at the time was that the rope had run out and the five officers on the beach had formed a human chain to give the rope an extension. Together, they pulled each other in and got McFadden and the three survivors to shore. McFadden took the three survivors into a police car and brought them to one of the only heated buildings in Fort Tilden at the time—the church. “After that point, all of the backup started to arrive—fire trucks, helicopters, other police, the Coast Guard, reporters. They all showed up at once and never stopped coming,” he said.

As word spread, both Don Morgan, a 101st Precinct NYPD Officer, and Charlie Senzel, a police captain for the NYPD Patrol Borough for Queens, said they got a call, saying, “The aliens are landing in Rockaway.” Morgan was on patrol on Beach 19th Street at the time. “My partner and I start driving uptown and at first we thought it was hysterical because we kept looking at the sky, expecting to see a UFO,” Morgan said. But nothing was funny about the scene they encountered. “My partner and I got there and saw bodies floating in the water and along the shoreline. They had plastic bags tied together and swung across their neck and they were jumping out of the boat with all of their belongings. I think that’s what caused some of them to drown,” Morgan recalled. Ten people died in the incident. Some bodies were found that night, others in the days after.

Others had tried to escape once they reached land. “They had other cops looking under people’s porches and in crawl spaces. There were a lot of phone calls to 911 about naked people running around Belle Harbor and hiding in people’s homes,” Morgan said. Senzel was one of the officers asked to search. “I was told to come back later in the evening to start doing the search. We went into the bunkers, we had dogs, helicopters, but we didn’t find anybody,” Senzel said.

The rescue effort would continue on into the morning. “At around noon, this guy in a suit comes up to me and says he was from Immigration and that I could leave now, he had it under control. I said, ‘it’s all yours’ and I walked away,’” McFadden said.

Some of the survivors were brought to area hospitals, like Peninsula Hospital. “We were asked to come down from all of the floors to the ER. There were so many of them, there weren’t enough stretchers. A lot of them came in for hypothermia and it was very scary because they looked like children and were so malnourished and didn’t understand English,” Lorraine Finke, a nurse’s aide at Peninsula Hospital said. “They weren’t with us that long.”

The Golden Venture had contained 286 Chinese immigrants and 13 crewmembers. Many of the immigrants came from the Fujian province of China, one of the poorest provinces at the time, where the one-child policy was being strictly enforced and forced sterilization and abortions were becoming common. Many of those aboard the Golden Venture paid as much as $40,000 for the ride to freedom, for the chance at a better life in America. But the ride there almost cost them their lives. The voyage began in February 1993, where 90 immigrants boarded off of Thailand. In March 1993, the boat made a stop at Kenya to pick up another 200 immigrants that had been stranded there after another smuggling ship broke down. Before running aground in Fort Tilden, most had spent 112 days at sea, living in squalor, in cramped conditions, surviving on rations. An at-sea hurricane almost capsized the boat. The trip was coordinated with Chinese gang members, who were supposed to pick up the passengers at sea, but that meeting never happened. When the crew saw the city skyline, they knew they had reached the land of freedom, and it was full speed ahead, right into the sand off Fort Tilden. Desperate to finally touch land, many of the immigrants chose to jump from the boat, and some chose to run. Six of them escaped.

Those who were “saved,” spent many days in jail, instead of enjoying freedom. At the time, policies would allow for the immigrants, especially those seeking asylum from the one-child limitation, to be released on bond. As illegal immigration became a growing problem as the Clinton administration stepped in, a decision was made to make an example out of the passengers and send a message that illegal immigration was not so easy. The passengers were detained by the newly formed Immigration and Naturalization Service. Over the years, 14 juveniles were released to court custody, 35 immigrants received political asylum, 55 were released on bond or INS parole, two received artist visas, and 111 chose the option of being deported, either back to China, or to seek asylum in South America, as it was better than spending their days in jail. It wasn’t until February 1997 that President Clinton finally decided to release 53 of those in jail, on parole, but they weren’t given legal status. Of the 111 that were deported, about half of them made their way back to the U.S. Today, it is believed about 200 Golden Venture passengers are living in the United States, many of them not being able to do much other than work in or own a Chinese restaurant, without legal status.

It is almost certain those who came on the Golden Venture, haven’t forgotten either, 25 years later. While The Rockaway Times couldn’t track down any of the survivors, we were told that that day had a lasting impact. “I was down by the beach in Fort Tilden sometime before Hurricane Sandy and it was a really windy day, but I saw all these people beautifully dressed for a wedding. They were Asian. I started talking to them and they said they chose that location because they had family members come there on the Golden Venture,” Senzel claims.

What ever came of the boat? Shortly after the grounding, it was removed, renamed United Caribbean and used as a cargo vessel in the Caribbean. Later, it was purchased by Palm Beach County for $60,000 and deliberately sunk off the coast of Boca Raton, Fl on August 22, 2000, to be used as an artificial reef that is now popular among divers. It lays on the bottom of the ocean floor, broken into three pieces due to damage over time caused by hurricanes.

As far as the organizers go, they paid for their crimes. Lee Peng Fei, the mastermind behind the smuggling plan, who had bought the ship, was arrested in Bangkok in 1995, tried in 2000, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Chen Chui Ping, also known as Sister Ping, a notorious snakehead based in Chinatown in New York, had put up the money for the scheme. She was arrested in Hong Kong in 2000 and sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2006, however she wouldn’t finish that sentence. Ping died of cancer in a Texas prison in April 2014.

The USPP officers were later awarded for their rescue efforts, with each receiving a Medal of Valor from the Department of Interior and other lifesaving awards, and McFadden receiving a Medal of Honor from the Park Police for swimming out to save passengers. The officers still haven’t forgotten June 6, 1993, a day that also marks the anniversary for another huge event 49 years before—D-Day.

“If it wasn’t for Dave Somma spotting that boat, that morning, when the sun rose and the fishermen would come down to go fishing, it would have looked more like the Normandy beaches on D-Day, with bodies all over the beach and water,” McFadden said.

“I can’t believe it’s been 25 years,” Somma said. “I’m telling you, I can replay the video in my mind as if it happened now.”

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