How the US crew fought off Somali pirates
For the first time, crewmembers of the Maersk Alabama share details of their Indian Ocean encounter
As the Maersk Alabama plowed through the glassy waters of the Indian Ocean last Wednesday morning, the cargo ship's 70-year-old electrician sat in the cafeteria with a cup of coffee, counting the minutes to breakfast.Skip to next paragraph
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Suddenly, the ship's alarm sounded, shattering the morning calm. The electrician rose with a start. It was, he reckoned immediately, the scenario that he'd been warned about for four months, ever since he set off aboard the Alabama into the most dangerous waters in the world.
Four Somali pirates had boarded the ship. On the deck of the blue-hulled Alabama, which was ferrying 17,000 tons of food aid to East Africa, the young pirates waved automatic weapons at ship captain Richard Phillips, the chief engineer and at least two other crewmembers. They demanded to know the whereabouts of the others, who'd gone into hiding as Phillips had trained them.
Twelve nerve-rattling hours later, the pirates had left in a lifeboat with Phillips as a hostage, but the crew of 19 – a motley, only-in-America bunch hailing from places as faraway as India, Poland and Detroit – had joined wills to thwart the first attempted hijacking of an American vessel at sea in at least two centuries.
In the rash of pirate attacks in the waters off Somalia, this is believed to be the first time that a crew successfully fought off a hijack attempt. More than 40 ships were hijacked last year, and four more were captured Tuesday, along with some 60 hostages.
The Alabama's crew steered their ship to Mombasa, Kenya, and on Sunday, US Navy sharpshooters aboard the USS Bainbridge destroyer killed three pirates on the lifeboat, rescuing Phillips after more than 100 hours in captivity.
No cowards on this ship
"There were no cowards on that ship," said the electrician, who asked to be identified by only his first name, John, because crewmembers feared they could be targeted for reprisals.
Maersk Line, the Norfolk, Va., ship owner, said that the USS Bainbridge would bring Phillips to Mombasa on Wednesday to be reunited with his crew, and then they're expected to board a chartered plane to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
The crew said Phillips wasn't the easiest man to work for. "He's in charge, and he wants you to know he's in charge," said Ken Quinn, a trim, middle-aged man from Detroit. His weekly, taskmaster-style drills, however, probably saved them all.
Crewmembers cut the Alabama's engine and killed the power, making it harder to commandeer. They sunk the pirates' speedboat, though they wouldn't say how. John crawled into hiding with several others in the dark, sweltering engine room.