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For months they didn't know where they were. Some days there was food, on others, nothing. One man kept a record by scratching the days - 114 of them - on the wall of the ship's hold.

The desperate voyage to America for about 300 illegal Chinese immigrants aboard the Golden Venture came to a terrifying end early Sunday when the freighter ran aground off a New York City beach.The Chinese, some in suits, others in underwear, jumped into the cold Atlantic and struggled toward shore in a scene that one police officer said looked like movies of the invasion of Normandy.

At least eight people died; many others were treated for exposure.

Roughly 275 immigrants were accounted for, almost all men. About 25 more were believed to have escaped in the pre-dawn chaos. Some 12 hours after the rescue, U.S. Park Police found two men cowering in nearby brush-covered dunes.

All had been well-rehearsed to ask for political asylum, and their hearings could take up to 18 months, immigration officials said.

A 27-year-old passenger from the Chinese city of Fuzhou said he and the others were terrified during the landing.

"We completely didn't know what was happening," said the immigrant, who was too afraid to give his name. "I felt like I died a little inside."

He jumped from the ship and said it felt like "there was no one to save us." But a rescuer helped him ashore.

The man, who came to the United States seeking work, said the boat had been at sea for more than three months but he didn't know where it had been.

"Some days there was food, some days there wasn't," he said, speaking in Mandarin. "It was very hard to get water to drink."

Officials estimate that more than 300 people were aboard the battered, 150-foot freighter on its 16,000-mile journey from China's coastal Fuijian province, around the southern tip of Africa to New York.

Authorities say the ship may have run aground intentionally - about 200 yards off the Rockaway peninsula in the borough of Queens - at 2 a.m. so the immigrants could flee to shore under cover of darkness.

Immigration officials report a rising tide of Chinese trying to sneak into the United States, often aided by Asian gangs that charge up to $35,000 per person for a shot at the American dream. More than 1,800 Chinese illegal aliens have been caught since January.

Those who slip in often are forced to work for years in indentured servitude to pay off the cost of their harrowing voyage.

Many asylum-seekers say they are trying to escape China's strict population-control policies, which can lead to forced sterilization and abortions. U.S. courts have approved applications on those grounds.

The 150-foot Golden Venture was the first ship carrying Chinese aliens to be intercepted in the New York area, according to William Slattery, director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in New York. But it was the 24th to reach U.S. waters in the past two years, he said.

A new federal task force was approved by the White House last week "to shut this traffic down," he said.

Two members of the U.S. park police spotted the grounded freighter and alerted the Coast Guard.

Some waded to shore clutching plastic bags of belongings. Others rode in, using plastic jugs as rafts on the 5-foot-deep, 53-degree surf.

The Chinese were eventually bused to an INS detention center.

"At first they were quite grim and sad. But now they feel really good," said Sgt. Doug Lee. "They say American police are much nicer than police in China."