NAIROBI, Kenya – In riveting high-seas drama, an unarmed American crew wrested control of their U.S.-flagged cargo ship from Somali pirates Wednesday and sent them fleeing to a lifeboat with the captain as hostage.
The destroyer USS Bainbridge, one of a half-dozen warships that headed for the area, arrived at the scene this morning a few hours before dawn, said Kevin Speers, a spokesman for the company that owns the Maersk Alabama. He said the boat with the pirates was floating near the ship, the first with an American crew to be taken by pirates off the Horn of Africa.
Speers said officials were waiting to see what happens when the sun comes up. Crew members had been negotiating with the pirates Wednesday for the return of the captain.
A family member said Capt. Richard Phillips surrendered himself to the pirates to secure the safety of the crew.
“What I understand is that he offered himself as the hostage,” said Gina Coggio, 29, half-sister of Phillips’ wife. “That is what he would do. It’s just who he is and his responsibility as a captain.”
Details of the day’s events emerged sporadically as members of the crew were reached by satellite phone, providing a glimpse of the maneuvering.
A sailor who spoke to the Associated Press said the entire 20-member crew had been taken hostage, but managed to seize one pirate and then successfully negotiated their own release. The man did not identify himself during the brief conversation.
The crisis played out hundreds of miles off the coast of Somalia – one of the most lawless nations in the world. President Barack Obama was following the situation closely, foreign policy adviser Denis McDonough said.
The Maersk Alabama was the sixth vessel seized by Somali pirates in a week. Pirates have staged 66 attacks since January, and they are still holding 14 ships and 260 crew members as hostages, according to the International Maritime Bureau, a watchdog group based in Kuala Lumpur.
Somalia’s 1,900-mile-long coastline borders one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and offers a perfect haven to the heavily armed pirate gangs. They often dress in military fatigues and use GPS systems and satellite phones to coordinate attacks from small, fast speedboats resupplied by a larger “mother ship.”
The pirates usually use rocket propelled grenades, anti-tank rocket launchers and automatic weapons to capture large, slow-moving vessels like the U.S.-flagged 17,000-ton Maersk Alabama, which was carrying food aid from USAID and other agencies to help malnourished people in Uganda and Somalia.
According to reports from the crew, the pirates sank their boat when they boarded the ship. The captain talked them into getting off the vessel using one of the ship’s lifeboats.
Second Mate Ken Quinn told CNN in a live interview Wednesday that the crew also had held a hostage.
“We had a pirate, we took him for 12 hours,” Quinn said. “We returned him, but they didn’t return the captain.”
Maersk Line Limited CEO John F. Reinhart said his company received a call that indicated the crewmen were safe. But the call got cut off, and the company could not ask any more questions.
It remained unclear how the unarmed sailors could have overpowered pirates armed with automatic weapons.
Capt. Shane Murphy, second in command on the ship, told his wife, Serena, that pirates had followed the ship Monday and pursued it again for three or four hours before boarding it Wednesday, family members said.
The ship was taken about 7:30 a.m. local time some 380 miles east of the Somali capital of Mogadishu. Analysts say many of the pirates have shifted their operations down the Somali coastline from the Gulf of Aden to escape naval warship patrols.
Reinhart said the company’s vessels had received a heightened alert about piracy activity. He did not have particulars about how the ship was taken but said the crew’s orders were to hide in safe rooms until aid came. They did not have weapons, he said, and typically, their defense would be to fight the pirates off with fire hoses as they climbed up the stern.
Andrea Phillips, the captain’s wife, said her husband had sailed in those waters “for quite some time” and a hijacking was perhaps “inevitable.”
Coggio, speaking to reporters from the porch of the Phillips’ farmhouse in Underhill, Vt., said the family had been told negotiations were being conducted to get the captain back to the boat.
Piracy expert Roger Middleton from London-based think tank Chatham House said it was unclear whether the pirates knew they were hijacking a ship with an American crew, but the incident would strengthen the hand of those in American military circles who want to take a more robust approach to anti-piracy operations.
Multimillion-dollar ransoms are fueling a piracy explosion. There were 111 attacks in 2008, and more than half that number have occurred in the first four months of this year. Last year, pirates made off with up to $80 million in ransom money, said Middleton. Those hauls included payment for a Saudi oil tanker and a Ukrainian ship loaded with military tanks, both of which were later released.
NATO already has five warships in the Gulf of Aden and is planning to deploy a permanent flotilla to the region this summer.
The NATO warships patrol alongside three frigates from the European Union, and up to 10 American ships. India, China, Japan, Russia and other nations also cooperate in the international patrols.