Surviving A Somali Pirate Attack On The High Seas

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The Maersk Alabama docked in Mombasa harbor, Kenya, on Nov. 22, 2009.  Richard Phillips was captain of the Maersk when pirates took over the ship in April 2009. (AP)
The Maersk Alabama docked in Mombasa harbor, Kenya, on Nov. 22, 2009. Richard Phillips was captain of the Maersk when pirates took over the ship in April 2009. (AP)

For several years, Somali pirates have terrorized the seas around the eastern Horn of Africa. These pirates, who carry AK-47s and travel in fast speedboats, target unarmed cargo ships traveling in the Gulf of Aden. According to the Piracy Reporting Center of the International Maritime Bureau, over 200 vessels were attacked by pirates in 2009, with 47 attacks resulting in successful hijackings.

One of those successful hijackings took place in April, when an American ship's captain named Richard Phillips was held hostage for several days on a lifeboat in the Indian Ocean. Phillips had been at the helm of the Maersk Alabama, a commercial cargo ship en route to Kenya, when the ship was attacked by four pirates in a tiny speedboat.

Though Phillips had regularly trained his crew in drills to handle an attack on the Maersk — manning the high-pressured fire hoses and flares, alerting the proper maritime transportation organizations and moving into a safe room — he says the pirates on April 8 were able to avoid the crew's evasive maneuvering. In his new memoir, A Captain's Duty, Phillips describes the five-day hostage ordeal that followed — and explains how he felt when the Navy SEALs staged a rescue mission and killed three of his four captors.

Phillips describes what it was initially like after he left the Maersk Alabama with the pirates and boarded the tiny Somali lifeboat.

"It [was] hot. After the first day, they had broken out two of the windows [in the closed lifeboat] just to get a breeze in there," he tells Dave Davies. "The first night, they closed all the hatches out of fear of something happening and they never did that again — after that, the hatches were always open in the normal course of events. So it was hot. The engine is running. So it is very hot on the deck. I was basically down at this time to a pair of pants and my stocking feet and I couldn't even put my feet down after the first few hours because it was so hot when it was continually running."

After several days, Phillips tried to escape the lifeboat. He was caught, beaten and tied up by his captors. When they threatened to kill him, he began to focus on what he thought was the end.

"I would focus on something and go through my mind — something to my wife, my daughter [and] my son," he says. "I would start thinking about people who had died — my father and neighbor. And people I would see — even Frannie, a dumb dog I had that was forever a problem. But I would just say my farewells. I apologized to my wife for the phone call that would tell her that her husband was dead. My daughter, I'd say a few things to her and then I'd say a few things to my son — just to settle, in my mind, so I'd be ready when the time came."

Several hours later, Phillips was sitting in the lifeboat while the pirates were standing on the ship. In the distance, the USS Bainbridge was monitoring the situation, when the Navy SEAL snipers onboard the carrier noticed that all three of the pirates on the lifeboat were visible. They fired and killed the pirates on the lifeboat.

"They knew how many were onboard, they knew where I was," says Phillips. "And they took a very difficult, miraculous shot and they were very successful."

Phillips says he initially assumed he was caught in a crossfire between pirate ships and had no idea the SEALs were even there.

The U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama in the Indian Ocean on April 9, 2009, as seen by a U.S. Navy P-3C Orion aircraft
The U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama in the Indian Ocean on April 9, 2009, as seen by a U.S. Navy P-3C Orion aircraft

"I would have thought it was impossible, if you asked me — if they could have done that," he says. "Until a guy says to me, in English, 'Are you all right?' which I hadn't heard in four or five days — and then he came down the forward hatch. I wasn't really sure what was going on. And indeed, it wasn't until I was being hoisted up on the USS Bainbridge with the SEALs and the Navy that I truly saw that I made it out of there. That I'm alive. I made it."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.