In a riveting high-seas drama, an unarmed American crew wrested control of their US-flagged cargo ship from Somali pirates and sent them fleeing to a lifeboat with the captain as hostage.
A US warship arrived on the scene this morning and was near the ship – the first with an American crew to be taken by pirates off the Horn of Africa – as crew members negotiated with the pirates for the return of the captain.
The owner of the Maersk Alabama, the American cargo ship seized yesterday by Somali pirates, said the destroyer USS Bainbridge had arrived.
It was not clear what the military crews would do. Options could include negotiation, backed by the threat of force. Any military action could risk the lives of the Americans, especially the captain being held hostage.
Last September 15, however, helicopter-borne French commandos swooped in to rescue two French citizens taken captive by Somali pirates aboard a luxury yacht.
Family members said Captain 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 Capt Phillips’ wife. “That is what he would do. It’s just who he is and his response 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 manoeuvring.
A sailor 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 on earth. President Barack Obama was following the situation closely, foreign policy adviser Denis McDonough said.
The Maersk Alabama was the sixth vessel seized by Somalis 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 US-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 yesterday that the crew also had held a hostage.
“We had a pirate, we took him for 12 hours,” Mr Quinn said. “We returned him, but they didn’t return the captain.”
Maersk Line Limited chief executive officer 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.
Captain Shane Murphy, second in command on the ship, told his wife, Serena, that pirates had followed the ship on Monday and pursued it again for three or four hours before boarding it yesterday morning, family members said.
The ship was taken about 7.30am local time some 380 miles east of the Somali capital of Mogadishu.