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.
"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 NPR. View this article on npr.org.
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.
For four days last April, the world watched as four Somali pirates held an American ship captain hostage in a covered lifeboat, practically in the shadow of a U.S. Navy destroyer. Captain Richard Phillips had been taken from a cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama.
It was the first pirate attack on an American-flagged vessel off the coast of Africa since the days of the Barbary pirates more than 200 years ago. The standoff ended when Navy Seal snipers positioned near the fan tail of the USS Bainbridge shot and killed three of the pirates.
Richard Phillips now has told his story in a new memoir, called "A Captain's Duty." Before his ordeal in the Indian Ocean, Phillips had been a merchant seaman for 30 years and a ship captain for 19. When he's ashore, he lives with his wife and family in Vermont.
When Phillips and his crew set sail from the Port of Djibouti for Mombasa, Kenya, he knew he would be in pirate-infested waters. I asked him to explain how pirates typically attacked and took control of a ship.
Mr. RICHARD PHILLIPS (Captain, Maersk Alabama; Author, "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea"): Well, the normal profile of a piracy attack is a mother ship that's just over the horizon or just out of sight, with anywhere from two to four smaller boats with outboard, fast engines that will try and harass the ship, shoot small arms, AK-47s, rifle pistols and perhaps RPGs is normal.
DAVIES: That's rocket...
Mr. PHILLIPS: Rocket-propelled grenades, yes.
DAVIES: Right. And they try to get the ship to stop.
Mr. PHILLIPS: They try and get the ship to stop, pull over, and of course, that's the last thing you want to do. What they then do is try to come alongside the ship, as the ship conducts evasive maneuvers, and tries to make it difficult for them to come alongsides.
DAVIES: Now, your crew is not armed, right?
Mr. PHILLIPS: On this ship, it was not armed, no. Every company has different policies.
DAVIES: Tell us about how the attack began. When did you become aware that these boats were following you?
Mr. PHILLIPS: It was detected by one of my crew, a very small boat, doesn't always pick up on the radar, and he had spotted it probably because of its bow wake. It's the normal time for a pirate attack is shortly after sunrise or shortly before sunset. The visibility does go down. You do get some haze in there. It was approximately 6:40, 6:45 when it was detected.
DAVIES: So you took evasive maneuvers with the ship. It eventually got closer. At what point were you sure they were pirates?
Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, at that time, I just changed course just to see if they'd mirror, and they did. So I was fairly sure at that point that it was pirates, even though there was only one boat. I scanned the horizon and checked the radar. There was no mother ship, which was kind of the wrong profile, but I still felt there was that situation.
And then we started trying to locate our people. We did have people working at approximately 6:45 in the morning. So I asked the mate to make sure the boatswain knew where his people were, in the event we had to pull them back in, and then we started to go over our routine.
We also made some phone calls on the ship's satellite phone, and then we continued to monitor and watch the situation.
DAVIES: All right. So this one boat of, I guess, four men in this boat with a high-speed outboard motor, gets close to your ship. What happened? Did they try and reach you by radio transmission? Did they have a bullhorn? Did they fire at you?
Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, no. Basically, once they got within a half mile, they started firing. Bullets were ricocheting off the house. By that time, I had my third mate, Colin(ph), firing flares at them to just let them know that we knew they were approaching.
When they got to a mile, we had already sounded our signal. We had already had our hoses running. We had our flares out and ready. So Colin was just shooting in their direction to show them that we knew they're there, and we were putting on a posture that we were ready for them -because it is a bully-type situation, and if they feel that it's too hard to get on your ship there, they will turn around and try and find an easier target. So we were trying to just make ourselves a difficult target and put on a security posture that they'd know we knew they were coming.
DAVIES: So they managed to find a place on the port side of the vessel where they were free of the hoses and got aboard. How quickly were they able to jump on board? How did they do it?
Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, by the time they were 50 yards off our port side, we were doing maneuvering to try and make it difficult, send up waves to try and make it difficult to come alongside.
We were doing approximately 18 knots, and they continued to come alongside as we maneuvered. They had a wonderful white ladder, which I constantly asked them later in the lifeboat, where did they get that white ladder. It looked like it was a brand new ladder, straight out of Mogadishu Home Depot.
And they hooked it up, and it was the perfect length for the Maersk Alabama. We had approximately 20 feet freeboard, which is from the height of the water to the height of the deck, the main deck, where you get above, and it fit perfectly. And within six seconds, the first pirate was aboard.
DAVIES: Now, this is a situation that you've thought about and trained for, but I'm sure your adrenaline was pumping. You had guys firing at you. Now, they're on your vessel, and they quickly make it to the bridge, where you are, and you come face to face with these pirates. Tell us about that moment.
Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, once they were aboard, I was able to still see the two people down on deck. So I felt I still had time. I was shooting flares at them. They're still shooting AK-47s at me. And they eventually - I didn't notice, but one did get by me down below on the deck and was able to shoot through our security chains and locks to get up to the bridge.
I believe he fired two shots into the air and then said: no problem, no problem. Just business. Just business, Captain. Relax. Relax. No al-Qaida, no al-Qaida.
DAVIES: No al-Qaida, meaning they weren't terrorists, they were there for some money.
Mr. PHILLIPS: Yes, they were just there - they were just pirates. I guess I was supposed to be relieved by that.
DAVIES: And the rest of the crew, you hope and believe, are in this safe area that you've agreed that they will go to, right? And they're locked up tight.
Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, they had mustered, reported in and then were going to the safe room and/or the second engineer was going to the engine room to assist the first engineer and the chief engineer, who were in the engine room. So my last knowledge of knowing where they were was in that - our original safe room, yes.
DAVIES: So you're there with these - it was three pirates on the bridge with you or four?
Mr. PHILLIPS: It was four total pirates. So we were up there...
DAVIES: You're there with these four pirates, and what they want to do is take the ship immediately to the coast of Somalia and then hold you, the ship and the cargo there for ransom, right?
Mr. PHILLIPS: Yes, first, though, they wanted to: one, find the mother ship, so they went to the radar...
DAVIES: That's their mother ship, the ship from which they launched, right?
Mr. PHILLIPS: From which they launched, correct, and their compatriots are also aboard. The normal routine is to get the mother ship alongside, and they can put on whoever's on there, anywhere from five to 20 guys, and put them on and actually go through the ship and take their time.
But they wanted first to contact the mother ship. They wanted to use the radar. They wanted to use the VHF, very high frequency, radio to talk to them, and then they wanted to use the cell phone to call Somalia, and then they wanted the crew to the bridge, and that was pretty much the direction. But the next step was to get all the crew to the bridge so they could put us all in one area and keep them from being afraid of being attacked, I guess.
DAVIES: Well, and the remarkable thing about this part of the story to me, is that they were able to do practically none of these things because you were able to convince them that the radar wasn't working and that you could not operate the vessel. How did you pull this off?
Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, it wasn't really all me. My crew did a great job here, and that's one thing I want to stress. They did a great job, using imaginative and innovative acts, and also went beyond our training.
What happened was one the pirate was there, I still had a hand-held radio in my hand. I was able to pass on that bridge is compromised, bridge is compromised, pirates on the bridge. And at that point, the first engineer, Matt(ph), took control of the wheel. The chief engineer, Mike(ph), took control of the engine, and really I had no control of the ship itself. They were in control of the ship, and that's one thing I want to stress. The pirates never took the ship. They took me, but they never did get the ship.
The first engineer, Matt, and Chief Mike, had control of the engine down below, and they wouldn't give it back up.
So from that point on, that's when the radar, I was able to debilitate the radar so they wouldn't have seen an aircraft carrier if it was next to us. And I was able to change the channel of the VHF, which they didn't notice, and I pretended I didn't know how to work the satellite telephone.
So I sort of kept them from making any outside communication, and that was my concern. I didn't want to see that mother boat come alongside.
DAVIES: So it was a period of, I don't know, a couple of hours here, where there's this charade going on. They tell you to operate the ship. You say the ship won't work, the radar won't work, I can't get the cell phone to work, and I can't the crew to come.
They want the crew to come, and you're supposedly calling the crew, but because you didn't say the password you've agreed upon, the crew knows to stay where they are in the secure location. And I would imagine these pirates are getting frustrated. Did they threaten to kill you if you didn't do what they wanted?
Mr. PHILLIPS: On two occasions, they did threaten to kill my crew, ATM, Colin and myself, if we didn't bring them in two minutes...
DAVIES: Just to correct, when you say ATM, one of your crew members actually has the first name of ATM, right?
Mr. PHILLIPS: Correct, he was my able-bodied seaman, my helmsman, and they were threatening his life in two minutes unless I called the crew. At times, I would call for four men, just send three men, all crew to the bridge.
I would be talking on the PA system to the ship and also my hand-held radio, and I would also key my hand-held radio, which I had by my side, when - sometimes when the pirates were talking so my crew would have some information on what was going on on the bridge. They could hear it. So twice they said that, and at one point, they also threatened to blow the ship up.
DAVIES: So they're threatening the two crewmembers that are on the bridge with you, but they still can't get access to the main - to the rest of the crew, who are in this safe location.
Mr. PHILLIPS: Correct. The crew by this time, I didn't know exactly where they were. During our drill, the chief engineer, Mike, had actually brought up a secondary secure room, and to my knowledge, that's where I guessed they were, but other than being in the initial safe room, that was my only guess.
So once I saw that they had taken control up on the bridge, where we were, alarms going off continually, and that's what I was doing. I was trying to stay busy helping the pirates shut off alarms. These alarms are going off all the time because the engineers had taken the power to the bridge, and that was sending off constant alarms in the engine room.
As far as the radar, they didn't know I had denigrated the capability, but they were just sort of looking at the radar and just shaking their head, thinking where their buddies were. And the VHF, they just couldnt - they didn't notice what channel it was on. I had switched from the international hailing and distress frequency, which is Channel 16, which all mariners monitor.
DAVIES: (Unintelligible), yeah.
Mr. PHILLIPS: That's the VHF, very high frequency - and they didn't notice there was a different number on it. I believe I went to 72, and they were talking in Somali on the radio and just were shaking their head, why didn't it work.
They would want me to make the ship go because they wanted to go to Somalia. And initially when they wanted me to make the ship stop, I explained it takes time, and they had wanted to stop quick, and actually, I had already - the chief had already taken control by that time, and I said, well, you probably broke it because you made me stop too quick.
DAVIES: Richard Phillips' memoir is called "A Captain's Duty." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: We're speaking with Captain Richard Phillips, who was taken hostage by Somali pirates last April and freed when Navy sharpshooters killed three of his captors. His new book about the experience is called "A Captain's Duty."
When four pirates boarded and took control of Phillips' ship, most of the crew were hidden in a safe area, while the pirates held Phillips and two seamen on the vessel's bridge.
The situation changed when his crew managed to overpower the pirate's leader, who'd gone looking for them. The crew agreed to release the pirate leader in return for the captain, provided the pirates left the ship in the vessel's covered, motorized lifeboat. Phillips then descended into the craft with the pirates.
DAVIES: So you made the decision here, that you would get in the boat with these pirates, right, after they, after your crew has released its hostage, their leader, and that you would get into a boat in the water with these four guys, and at that point, you're hoping they're going to release you, but you don't know.
Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, we were in the lifeboat by now, and that was the deal. I was showing them how to run the lifeboat. They needed somebody to get them into the water, and I agreed to be that person who would help them get off the ship and get into the boat in the water.
Eventually, we were in the lifeboat, and so again, my fear was that we would have to put a ladder down to make the exchange, and I stressed to my chief mate, just make sure it's six or seven feet above the boat so they couldn't climb up, only someone could get down.
The leader came down first. He came into the boat, wanted to see how the boat ran, and then...
DAVIES: That's the leader of the pirates, right, that your crew has now released. Right, okay, go ahead.
Mr. PHILLIPS: Yeah, and then he proceeded, he wanted to learn how to run the boat, and then he started steaming off, and I said, are we going back? And he said no, and that's when I learned that you should never trust pirates.
But from that, there was a sort of humorous time at this. I mean, the crew that the pirates couldn't find were now looking down at them from the main deck, talking to them on the radio. The ship that wouldn't move was now smoke coming out of the stack, moving right along, and actually, they were getting afraid of the ship because my chief mate, Shane Murphy, was coming fairly close, and they were nervous. And they were saying he's going to run us over. He's going to sink us. I said yeah, he's going to run us over. He wants my job.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PHILLIPS: So they actually got very nervous and asked me to get back in the boat to try and keep them from running us over. So it was sort of humorous at that point, because everything they tried to make happen was now working, and people were out there, and to their chagrin, they were not successful.
DAVIES: Right, but there's nothing funny about your situation then, and you're in this lifeboat with the four pirates, and the pirates, I assume, head for the Somali coast so that they now at least have an American ship captain as hostage that they can trade for ransom, right?
Mr. PHILLIPS: Correct. When we were on the ship, they were pointing to the map to find out where a town was. They were asking me. I don't remember the town, but it was up in Puntland or North Somaliland, and they actually had a course they wanted to steer, and that was 340 degrees on the magnetic compass on the lifeboat.
So they got the engine going, and we started proceeding to 340 degrees, but once off the Alabama, the pirates were talking to the now-captain, Shane Murphy, and he - they were saying yeah, tomorrow we'll do it again. You can come on aboard, no weapons, and we'll figure this thing out, and the pirates were sort of thinking they could trick him into letting them come back aboard tomorrow. So we actually drifted for a little while, until the Navy got there, I'm going to say between one and two in the morning on Thursday.
DAVIES: Right, and up until the Navy arrived, you're enduring some pretty tough conditions, right? It's insufferably hot inside this boat, right?
Mr. PHILLIPS: It is hot. After the first day, they had broken out two of the windows just to get a breeze in there. The first night, they closed all the hatches out of fear of something happening, and they never did that again unless something bad was going to happen. After that, the hatches were always open in the normal course of events.
So it was hot. There is - go ahead.
DAVIES: Are you tied up?
Mr. PHILLIPS: At this time, I'm not tied up. The engine is running. So the engine 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.
DAVIES: I want to stop at this point and ask you: What did these guys look like? What was their interaction with you like?
Mr. PHILLIPS: They were typical West Africans who were very thin. They could speak English. We had no problem communicating. They were very hostile. They were hostile to my crew, constantly putting guns in their faces and occasionally in mine.
DAVIES: What were they wearing, these guys?
Mr. PHILLIPS: They came on, I believe, I want to say sweatpants, T-shirts, shorts, T-shirts, Bass sandals, flip-flops, what we call.
DAVIES: So they're not like a SWAT team. I mean, they really dress very casually, flip-flops.
Mr. PHILLIPS: Oh yeah. They're dressed as most people from that area of the world is and actually anywhere on the horn of Africa, that's pretty much the way they dress, yes.
DAVIES: And how - when did you become aware the Navy was on the case?
Mr. PHILLIPS: Until they came, approximately, I'm going to say 0100, 0200. By then, the pirate had taken my watch. And...
DAVIES: So that's in the middle of the night, right?
Mr. PHILLIPS: In the middle of the night, yeah, and it's dark out, and all of a sudden, you hear sirens, and you see the ship, and they have a very bright, high-intensity light shining in that lit up the inside of the lifeboat because the hatch was open, as if it was day, and that really spooked them.
DAVIES: How did they react to seeing that destroyer bearing down on them?
Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, the first thing they said was shut the light off, shut the light off. They weren't too concerned with the Navy because the standard practice at that time was to just - the Navy would just hang around, monitor and would not attack.
The normal routine was just three, four, five months later, ransom would be paid, and the hostage would be released. So they weren't too worried about the Navy in the beginning, and I think they sort of expected it, due to things that happened on the ship, the Maersk Alabama. So they weren't too concerned.
DAVIES: And the Navy sends over a skiff at some point, right, and gives you a package? They check to see that you're alive and okay. They send a package with, what, a radio, batteries and what else?
Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, originally, the first drop was just into a wooden box, and they dropped - a small boat, I guess, dropped it over. I never saw the boat. The boat just dropped it over. We motored over, picked up this wooden box, and inside was water, radio, batteries and some food -Pop-Tarts.
DAVIES: So you're in this enclosed vessel with these four pirates for days. It's terribly, terribly hot. I mean, I can't believe, imagine you slept very much. What were your talks with the pirates like? Did you get to know them at all?
Mr. PHILLIPS: There were various talks. We were able to communicate with no problem. It was getting hotter and hotter as time went on. Normally at sea, it's nice because you can bookend your day with a sunrise and sunset, but on that lifeboat, I came to dread the sunrise and shortly before it rose because I knew the heat was going to come back.
I would catch snatches of sleep here and there, mainly during the day because at night, it would get a little cooler, and you'd be able to catch maybe a little breeze through the broken windows. But our conversations were - at times, we had some humorous conversations. At times, they were very direct.
We all knew how each other stood, and one time, when they were - they had come about with lighters, and their lighters had died in the lifeboat. They had plenty of cigarettes, and they actually had to tear apart a flashlight to use the lens to try and start their cigarettes. I was giving them a hard time, saying oh, that's terrible. You can't have a cigarette. And they actually did, after 10 or 15 minutes, get that cigarette lit, and they were happy.
And we had some conversations, almost typical, but it would always come back around to everyone knew where each stood and the value of each other's lives because it would always come back to that, and they truly didn't care about anyone's life.
DAVIES: Richard Phillips' new memoir is called "A Captain's Duty." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.
We're speaking with Richard Phillips, a veteran cargo ship captain who was taken hostage by Somali pirates last April. His book about the ordeal is called "A Captain's Duty." After the pirates took his vessel, Phillips ended up as their hostage on a covered, motorized lifeboat for four sweltering days.
You know, there's this phenomenon called the Stockholm syndrome in which hostages establish a human bond with their captors. Did you ever feel any sympathy with these guys at all?
Capt. PHILLIPS: No, none. Not at all. I always maintained that I would be their adversary. I was not going to be their hostage, someone they could just kill for notoriety or ransom for money. I had to be an adversary. I had to be an equal adversary. I wasn't going to give in, even though sometimes I thought the chances of anything being successful or a good outcome were very slim-to-none. If I was going to die, they were going to take my life. And so I had no feelings whatsoever.
At times, on Saturday afternoon, I don't know what was going on. We did hear some buzzing, and they closed all the hatches and they started slinking as far back in the boat as they could. And it's strange to see people with weapons have abject fear in their eyes. But what they did is try and put a blindfold on me twice. I took it off twice, and they put a guy right next to me with a gun. So, again, if any shot was fired, mine would be the second shot, and basically I would take the blindfold off and says if you're going to shoot me, you're going to be looking at my eye when you do it.
DAVIES: Things really changed in the boat after you attempted to escape. Tell us what happened.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Capt. PHILLIPS: Well, they were very upset, irate, incensed. I think it was against their sensibilities that I wouldn't play by the normal hostage procedure. Normally, they would have two people guarding me in the boat from the stern end, one from the forward end and the leader usually sat up in the cockpit area - the control area. Well, that one night - that was, I'm going to say Friday morning at, again, 0 dark 30, as everything happens in the Merchant Marines, between midnight and two, one man got up and lie down. I started hearing two men snoring from the forward end of the boat.
The man in the cockpit - the leader - the guy they got in New York now was sort of nodding and drooping like he was at a bad movie, and I'm thinking I can get by him. And all of a sudden the guy in the steering gets up, steps outside, puts his weapons down - AK-47 - and then continues to heed the call of nature. I don't know any good way to say it. But he uses two hands for this. I see this, and I start trying to move my feet around because I know this is my chance. I move my feet around so I know they aren't asleep and I can stand up without falling. I take two strides out, push him in - had to do it twice.
He goes in screaming, and I, for a second, tried to grab the weapon, but I don't how - at that time, I didn't know how to use an AK-47 - since then I do. And then I dove in. Surfaced once, took another breath, went under water, surfaced again, and then just started swimming towards the Bainbridge, which was a half mile away. They were able to catch me. And when they got me back in the lifeboat, they were truly incensed, beating me, hitting me, hitting me with their weapon, tying me up so tight my hands instantly went numb, and then they were truly incensed so they didn't play by the proper rules of kidnapping.
DAVIES: So it's a completely different atmosphere inside the boat now. I mean - and again, you've been up days now. You're exhausted. You haven't had much to eat. You haven't had much sleep. And they're tying your hands so tight that the circulation is cutting off feeling. And they're taunting you, as well as beating you, right?
Capt. PHILLIPS: Well, at this time, yeah. During that period they were. They did eventually loosen my bindings because they could see -although, it's still so tight they were going numb and blowing up like clown's gloves, turning white. They would occasionally come by and feel my fingers and say ooh, good, good, because they could see, you know, the swelling and the color. And they really showed how little they cared about anything. They have no concern for life, and they, from that point on, they really would show their true colors.
DAVIES: And there came a point in which you became convinced they really were going to kill you, and you began to say your farewells.
Capt. PHILLIPS: Well, basically after that, that was Friday, when the atmosphere just changed and they started incantations. I imagine Muslim. They were talking Somali the whole time then. And that's what I said to them. What are you going to do, kill me? During this time, I would frequently say to them, you know, when I wasn't doing what they wanted, I would say: What are you going to do? Tie me up? But this time I just felt that. It was like a light switch went off. You could feel it in the air. The electricity in the boat just changed.
So after that event, they did so these simulated rituals with trying to kill me. And so after that time - because I didn't have time that time to do it - I would focus on something and just go through my mind, you know, something to my wife, my daughter, my son. And I would start thinking about people who had died, father, a neighbor and, you know, people I would see, even my Frannie, a dumb dog I had that was forever a problem. But I would just say my farewells. I apologized to my wife for two o'clock or five o'clock in the morning phone call which would tell her her husband's dead. My daughter, I'd say a few things to her, and then I would say a few things to my son just to sort of settle in my mind so I'd be ready when the time came. I really didn't think it was going to be a good outcome, but I still was going to try and escape again, and I was not going to give in or bend to their ways.
DAVIES: At some point, the leader ends up going from your vessel to the USS Bainbridge. How did that happen?
Capt. PHILLIPS: I didn't see how he actually physically got there. He told me that he was going over to check out a blue Pakistani tug for the Navy to see if there were any kind of problem and strike up a conversation, feel them out for the Navy. In reality, I learned later that he went to the Navy ship for medical care, which he wasn't hurt that much. I tended to him the first day on the boat, and it wasn't that much of a laceration on his ear and on his neck - and also, I guess, to bargain. Later, one of the Navy ship - boats came by, the small boats, and gave me my watch back.
And I said where'd you get the watch? He goes, from the pirate. And that sort of made me think. And so he was over there talking to the Navy, and then it was just the three pirates. And we went through our continuing -one thing they frequently did was tie and untie knots and berate how U.S. seamen are so inferior to Somali ones and how many knots they can tie and how to tie certain knots and certain lines meant certain things, and some were haleo(ph) ropes, and so they would have me go through this, basically, most of the day of Sunday. And eventually, there was also some animosity going on between the two tall guys - who were obviously some kind of seamen - and a younger guy who was a little less experienced. He was a younger guy with the Charlie Manson eyes, and sort of the crazy guy. He liked to just sort of dry fire his gun at me and then smile at me when he did it.
So this was going on all day. And it got to the point at one point where they actually did untie me, and I said I'm out of here. I'm going to go jump in the water and get cool. I'm done with them. I explained to them what they could do to themselves, and then I got up. They were right next to me, so they sort of grabbed me - one around my waist, one around my leg, and I'm sort of taking one, maybe two steps forward in the boat, and the young one who was up forward fires his AK-47.
Well, after firing that, I got to know the sound of that pretty well. I sat down. And - but then they were upset that he had fired it, because if the Navy thought I was dead, they would storm the boat and kill them, and I was there. So while I was being their hostage, I was their shield. So they were standing up. I was actually starting to lie down facing forward and watching the two forward guys go up to forward hatch. The young guy with the Charlie Manson eyes was going to the cockpit. He was being sullen and mad that he was being yelled at, and that's when the shots rang out.
DAVIES: So, in effect, they fired that shot, and then the Navy had that rare circumstance in which all three of the pirates came into view. And because they'd been visiting you, they knew exactly how many were on board.
Capt. PHILLIPS: Oh, yeah. They knew how many were on board. They knew where I was, and they took a very difficult, miraculous shot, and they were very successful.
DAVIES: Now, those of us who were watching this on television read it as these Navy SEALs, the snipers made these incredible shots and killed the pirates. What was the experience for you? What did you experience?
Capt. PHILLIPS: Well again, for me, I thought I was caught in the crossfire between the antagonistic pirates fighting among themselves, so I didn't think it was the SEALs. I didn't know the SEALs were there. I would've thought it was impossible, if you asked me, that they could've done that. So I was really - until a guy says to me, in English, are you all right - a voice I hadn't heard in four or five days, and then he came down the forward hatch, I really wasn't sure what was going on. Indeed, it wasn't until I was being hoisted upon the USNS Bainbridge on the RIB boat with the SEALs and the Navy that I truly saw that, hey, I made it out of there. I'm alive. I made it.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Captain Richard Phillips. His new book is called "A Captain's Duty."
We'll talk more right after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Richard Phillips. He was the American sea captain who was taken hostage by pirates last year in the Indian Ocean and eventually rescued by Navy SEAL sharpshooters. He has a book about his story. It's called "A Captain's Duty."
So after the Navy SEALs shot these pirates, you were brought aboard the USS Bainbridge. What was the first thing you wanted?
Capt. PHILLIPS: The fist thing I wanted was to get out of that boat. After that, I wanted to get out of my clothes, take a shower and brush my teeth after five days. That was probably the first thing. Of course, they immediately took me to the - their hospital, and they took my clothes off. I said you can keep those clothes. All I had was a pants and socks and underpants. And then they gave me a boiler suit and the required Bainbridge hat, and they then sent me over by - via helicopter to the another U.S. Navy ship, the Boxer.
DAVIES: How did you react emotionally to the experience in those first few days?
Capt. PHILLIPS: I did have problems. The first two nights, I would find myself waking up at five o'clock in the morning and just be crying my eyes out, bawling - something a New England sea captain doesn't do too much. It was sort of strange to me. So I would, you know, throw some water in my face, and I was just going, what are you a wimp? I'm alive. What do you got to be complaining about? I was able to talk to -actually, one of the SEALs insisted I talk to a psychologist, and I did. And he really broke it down into chemicals that are excreted by your various glands and what happens, and he would ask me questions about things I had.
And the only problem I had was I would wake up, at that time - it happened twice to me, the first two nights I was off the life raft. After talking to him after the second morning, he gave me - he asked me, what did I do? And I said, well, I told you, just what I said. I'd throw water on my face. I'd go take a shower. I'd say what are you a wimp? What's your problem? And he said, well, don't do that. Don't fight it. Let it flow. Let it flow as long as it goes. And so I followed his advice and I let it flow. I just sat there in my bed and I probably cried, bawled like a little kid for, I'm going to say two minutes. And then it ran its course, I dried up. Then I threw water on my face, I took a shower and started my day with my coffee, and I never had a problem after that.
DAVIES: I have to ask you this. You know, all of us at times wonder, I think, how we would react in a situation of mortal threat: whether we would be, you know, selfless or heroic or cowardly, whether we would think of ourselves or others first. And I imagine that as a ship captain, you must've considered the possibility of situations like this before it happened. And I'm wondering how did the experience compare with what you might have imagined before?
Capt. PHILLIPS: Well, I think one thing that's great about being a Merchant Marine, especially in the United States Merchant Marine, but in any Merchant Marine, we actually put it on the line. We have to deal with fires. We have to deal with emergency situations. A storm can be a catastrophe. A broken bone or a slight laceration could be a death sentence. A fire can be a complete disaster. So we have to deal with this, and we are put in situations where we get to see how we would react in extraordinary situations. I've been in engine room fires. I've been in ship tows. I've been in emergency evacuations with serious medical injuries.
So one thing I've always told my crew is there's nothing better when you go through an emergency situation and you do the right thing. There's nothing better, because I think in all of us, we all know how well we are doing. And that's one of the real reasons I wrote this book. It's what I learned in my experience with this incident with pirates is that we're all stronger than we know. We can take more than we know. There's more to us than even we ourselves know. I believe that, you know, that's one of the inspirational things of this story is we're stronger than we know. The other reasons why - besides being a good story with a great ending for me - I wrote the story was to recognize, again, the real heroes of the story is the military and U.S. Navy, and Navy SEALs, in particular.
They did an impossible job, and they do this day in, day out. And they don't get the recognition or the thanks of us. And I also wanted to recognize the Merchant Marines and my crew, in particular. They went beyond the training. They used imaginative and innovative actions and techniques. And lastly, for my brothers and sisters who are sailing internationally, these incidents are still going on. There's still pirates out there. Just yesterday, other ships are taken. There's over 150 people still kept hostage in Somalia. There's over 12 ships. Every day, they're being attacked, and it's Americans, it's Pakistanis, it's Sri Lankans, it's Indians, it's the Dutch. And it's still going on and that's really why I wrote the story, and also just to give a view of what we out there on the ships.
DAVIES: And it is an interesting look into another world for us, apart from the story that you tell in the book. But, as you know, several crew members from the Alabama Maersk have sued the company. And some of them say that you ignored warnings about - from maritime security organizations in the days before that attack, that there were intensified pirate operations and that you should have been taking a course farther from the Somali coast. Now this is, I will say, not a unanimous view. And indeed, your Chief Mate Shane Murphy doesnt agree with this point of view.
But in an Associated Press story, Mike Perry, who was the chief engineer aboard the ship, was quoted as saying that you caused this and they all know it. What's your response to those criticisms?
Capt. PHILLIPS: Well, we all know the litigious society that we do live in and this is a litigation that the companies are being sued for this, so its really not my place to mention it. But I just want to say that in our route that we traveled: Oman, Djibouti, and Mombasa, if you look down on a map, if we stayed 600, 800, 1000 miles outside of Somalia, we could never get to those areas. We were always in the pirate areas. There was no time where we were outside the pirate areas, even if these third-party security firms were saying it.
Ships were being taken a thousand miles out. Ships were being taken north of Madagascar. These pirates are evolving, they're not stupid. And they're - I equate them to a pack of jackals going after the wildebeest or, as our World War II mariners would say, they're in the coffin corner with the U-boats just picking off whatever than can.
They aren't picking their ships. They're attacking anything they can see. Indeed, two and a half days ago they attacked for the 12th time a U.S. - a military ship, this one being U.S. And they were able to repel them and take care - take these pirates prisoners. So these people are attacking anything. Its a bully situation. The Goa, the Gulf of Aden area, and where I sailed east of Somalia is a target-rich environment.
DAVIES: You testified before the U.S. Senate about your experience afterwards and I believe you told them that crews should be armed and that there ought to be armed escorts. I mean, do you see steps that would put an end to piracy?
Capt. PHILLIPS: I talked in front of two subcommittees, a very good Senator Lautenberg, a very good man, and Senator Kerry. I talked to them and I've always espoused - and I want to stress, these are my beliefs as a captain, as a seaman - seaman first, captain second. I believe that we have to have armed security. Two men, above average trained, experienced special forces, Green Berets, SEALs, if you will.
I believe on top of that, we have to give the ships and the seamen the wherewithal to protect themselves. I do believe in non-lethal means, of course. I do believe in extra training. I've always been called a trainer. I like training. I think that's what gets us through. And I also believe along with non-lethal, we do have to have real safe rooms, not specially, you know, designed ones we had that we made up, but actually safe rooms with ventilation, their own power, communications, SAT phones, VHF-UHF. But we do have to use all these things.
We have to meet each level of danger and peril with an equal and capable answer. So I believe in all these things with a multifaceted defense plan. I think we have to use each stage to meet each level of threat. And there is no one silver bullet and that's one thing I stress. Just putting military men on the ships is not necessarily a solution because these pirates are evolving and they're going to use new means and new methods. So it has to be a multifaceted security protection plan for my fellow international brothers and sisters at sea.
DAVIES: Before we go, I have to ask you, this experience certainly must have changed your life in some way. I mean, there's this book. There will likely be a movie. Do you think youll go back to sea?
Capt. PHILLIPS: Well, this is an often answered question and I can say I've notified my companies, I just made a decision a few days ago. I intend to, in late May, I'm going to - with my family, spend the last vacation with my family down in the British Virgin Islands at The Moorings, spend a little family time and come June 1st, my sea bag will be packed and I hope to be heading to sea come June.
DAVIES: You will be commanding another merchant vessel.
Capt. PHILLIPS: If my company will have me.
DAVIES: Richard Phillips, thanks so much for spending some time with us.
Capt. PHILLIPS: Thank you very much, Dave.
DAVIES: Richard Phillips' new memoir is called "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea." You can read the first chapter at our Web site, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.