How the US crew fought off Somali pirates

For the first time, crewmembers of the Maersk Alabama share details of their Indian Ocean encounter

By , McClatchy Newspapers

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.

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.

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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.

The "only redneck on board," John, who lives in Lake Helen, Fla., got his first seafaring job nearly five decades ago aboard a Polaris submarine. Gray-haired and, of late, slightly potbellied, he's a proud owner of 87 acres of lakeside Alabama country and is a drawly, drawn-out storyteller in the southern tradition. It was his first hijacking, and before he set off on the Alabama he'd barely heard of Somalia, never mind Somali pirates.

It was suffocating inside the engine room – 130 degrees, he estimated. John tried to fan himself with a scrap of cardboard, but that just exhausted him more. And he had no idea how long they'd have to stay down there.

Capturing one pirate

Two hours went by, and there was a shot heard above. One of the pirates had pressed an AK-47 rifle into the forehead of the chief engineer, a short, wiry Indian-American named A.T.M. Reza, and then squeezed off a round about an inch from Reza's ear.

The pirates spoke just enough English to make their intentions known. "Tell us where they are or I'll kill you," one said to Reza.

Reza agreed to lead one of the teenage pirates below deck. But before they reached the engine room, another crewmember stepped out from behind them and jumped onto the pirate. Reza stabbed the Somali's skinny hand with an ice pick and they hauled him into the engine room.

The pirate was pushed to the floor. A boot was jammed into his neck. The Somali gasped for breath and seemed to pass out. Someone jerked him up from the floor and he coughed back into consciousness.

"If any of our crew gets killed, I'd have killed him," John said of the pirate. "I wanted my pound of flesh." But Reza reminded them that the pirate could be a bargaining chip.

Many more hours passed. John unbuttoned his shirt to his navel in a futile attempt to get some air. He glanced over from time to time at the pirate, who was tied up and now lying very still.

"I thought, at least he's more uncomfortable than me," he said.

A pirate for a captain

They'd spent 12 hours down there when, finally, they were summoned to the deck. Phillips had offered himself up as a hostage in exchange for the captured pirate and climbed into one of the Alabama's 28-foot lifeboats, now bobbing alongside the ship. True to character, he was yelling at his crew to fill the boat with water and fuel so he could come back aboard.

"What the hell took you so long to get here?" Phillips shouted.

The deal was that the crew would lower the injured pirate into the lifeboat in a harness, and Phillips would climb aboard. But the pirate surprised the crew by jumping into the lifeboat. "Let's go!" he said, and the pirates shoved off with Phillips in custody.

It would be five days before they would hear from him again. On Monday, the morning after Phillips' rescue, first mate Shane Murphy said the crew had "an extremely emotional" phone conversation with Phillips.

"Everyone you see here today has captain Phillips to thank for their lives and their freedom," Murphy said.

There were other heroes, of course. Take Reza, the middle-aged father who stabbed the pirate's hand. That wound eventually became infected, forcing the pirate to ask US sailors to board the USS Bainbridge for medical care Sunday, hours before the Navy assault killed his three comrades.

The young man remains in military custody and could face charges in the United States – the only pirate alive to tell their side of this story.

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