U.S. crew retakes ship, but captain hostage
Captain is taken hostage as attackers flee in lifeboat; warships on the way
3:32 p.m. PT, Wed., April 8, 2009
NAIROBI, Kenya - U.S. and allied warships on Wednesday headed towards a U.S.-flagged container ship off Somalia whose captain was taken hostage by pirates after the American crew foiled their bid to take the ship itself.
U.S. sources told NBC News that when the 20-man crew overpowered one armed pirate, the three other pirates on board grabbed the captain as hostage and fled the Maersk Alabama container ship in a lifeboat.
After negotiating with the pirates, the civilian crew released the one pirate they had, expecting the pirates to release the captain, the sources added, but that did not happen.
International naval forces from several countries, including the U.S. Navy, are sending vessels to the scene. According to one source, the pirates are essentially "all alone, more then 300 miles out to sea, and warships from several countries are on the way."
One official said a Navy P-3 surveillance plane and unmanned drones are overhead feeding video of the scene and monitoring the situation.
'We are trying to get him back'
Reached by satellite phone, second mate Ken Quinn told CNN that "right now they want to hold our captain for ransom, and we are trying to get him back."
"We had one of their hostages, we had a pirate. We took him for 12 hours. We tied him up. We returned him. But they didn't return the captain," Quinn said.
"Right now we are trying to offer them whatever we can, food. It's not working too good," Quinn said.
He said the crew was communicating with the captain, Richard Phillips of Underhill, Vt., by radio.
President Barack Obama was following the situation closely, foreign policy adviser Denis McDonough said.
The ship was carrying emergency food relief to Mombasa, Kenya, when it was hijacked, the Copenhagen-based container shipping group A.P. Moller-Maersk said.
The vessel is the sixth to be seized within a week, a rise that analysts attribute to a new strategy by Somali pirates operating far from the warships patrolling the Gulf of Aden. It was believed to be the first hostage-taking of American sailors in 200 years.
Ship has food aid for Africa
Maersk Line Limited CEO John Reinhart said the vessel’s manifest showed it was carrying 401 containers of food aid bound for Africa from USAID, Serving God Ministries, the World Food Program and Catholic Relief.
Merchant crews aren't supposed to fight pirates, short of using high-pressure hoses to try to stop them from climbing aboard, Reinhart said.
"They (the crews) don't have any weapons, so it would be inappropriate for them to try to be heroes. We'd like them to come home safely," he told a news conference.
Cmdr. Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, said that it was the first pirate attack “involving U.S. nationals and a U.S.-flagged vessel in recent memory.” She did not give an exact timeframe.
Andrea Phillips, the captain's wife, said her husband has sailed in those waters “for quite some time” and a hijacking was perhaps “inevitable.”
The ship's second in command is Capt. Shane Murphy. His father, Joseph Murphy, a professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, said his son was a 2001 Massachusetts Maritime Academy graduate who recently talked to a class about the dangers of piracy.
The younger Murphy wrote on his Facebook profile that he worked in waters between Oman and Kenya.
“These waters are infested with pirates that highjack (sic) ships daily,” Murphy wrote on the page, which features a photograph of him. “I feel like it’s only a matter of time before my number gets called.”
Joseph Murphy said his son was trained in anti-piracy tactics at the academy and received training with firearms and small-arms tactics.
Somali pirates are trained fighters who frequently dress in military fatigues and use speedboats equipped with satellite phones and GPS equipment. They are typically armed with automatic weapons, anti-tank rocket launchers and various types of grenades. Far out to sea, their speedboats operate from larger mother ships.
The U.S. Navy said that the ship was hijacked early Wednesday about 280 miles southeast of Eyl, a town in the northern Puntland region of Somalia.
Closest Navy ship was far away
U.S. Navy spokesman Lt. Nathan Christensen said the closest U.S. ship at the time of the hijacking was 345 miles away.
Douglas J. Mavrinac, the head of maritime research at investment firm Jefferies & Co., noted that it is very unusual for an international ship to be U.S.-flagged and carry a U.S. crew. Although 95 percent of international ships carry foreign flags because of the lower cost and other factors, he said, ships that are operated by or for the U.S. government — such as food aid ships like the Maersk Alabama — have to carry U.S. flags, and therefore, employ a crew of U.S. citizens.
There are fewer than 200 U.S.-flagged vessels in international waters, said Larry Howard, chair of the Global Business and Transportation Department at SUNY Maritime College in New York.
Pirates venturing farther out
Roger Middleton, a piracy expert at the London-based think tank Chatham House, said the anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden have pushed the pirates into the Indian Ocean -- a much vaster area where backup is no longer quickly in reach.
"Now that the pirates are launching attacks in the Indian Ocean, they have this huge area," Middleton said.
Ships trying to protect themselves against pirates are recommended to constantly be on the lookout for pirates, travel at full speed, and take evasive procedures such as using water cannons and fire hoses to flood the engines of the pirates' skiffs, Middleton said.
But even those procedures aren't foolproof in the face of pirates often armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.
"They have guns, and the crew don't," Middleton said.
On Monday, pirates hijacked a British-owned, Italian-operated ship with 16 Bulgarian crew members on board.
Over the weekend, they also seized a French yacht, a Yemeni tug and a 20,000-ton German container vessel. Interfax news agency said the Hansa Stavanger had a German captain, three Russians, two Ukrainians and 14 Filipinos on board.
In December 2008, Somali pirates chased and shot at a U.S. cruise ship with more than 1,000 people on board but failed to hijack the vessel.
The pirates have taken captured vessels to remote coastal village bases in Somalia, where they have usually treated their hostages well in anticipation of a sizeable ransom payment.
Pirates stunned the shipping industry last year when they seized a Saudi supertanker loaded with $100 million worth of crude oil. The Sirius Star and its 25 crew were freed in January after $3 million was parachuted onto its deck.
Last September, they also grabbed world headlines seizing a Ukrainian cargo ship carrying 33 Soviet-era T-72 tanks. It was released in February, reportedly for a $3.2 million ransom.