A high seas drama unfolded off the coast of Africa on Wednesday, as Somali pirates seized a U.S.-flagged cargo ship and held 20 American sailors hostage. The crew managed to retake the ship within hours, but the pirates took away the ship's captain and held him for ransom.
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, a spokesman for the ship's owner said.
The unarmed container ship, the Maersk Alabama, was the first American-flagged vessel to be captured by pirates in 200 years, historians said.
Details of the day's events emerged sporadically as members of the crew were reached by satellite phone.
Seas were calm and winds light, the weather bureau in the nearby Seychelles islands said. It was pirate weather, more benign than the earlier storms and swells that helped frustrate the marine criminals, who use swift but light and fragile skiffs to chase down their prey.
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, periodically opening fire with automatic weapons, family members said.
"These waters are infested with pirates that highjack (sic) ships daily," Murphy had written on his Facebook profile. "I feel like it's only a matter of time before my number gets called."
The ship was taken about 7:30 a.m. local time some 380 miles east of the Somali capital of Mogadishu. According to the crew, the pirates sank their boat when they boarded the ship.
Any help was distant; the Navy said its closest warship was 345 miles away. But the crew had managed to disable the ship at about the time the pirates came on board, according to a senior U.S. military official.
Sitting dead in the water and soon to be in the crosshairs of the U.S. military, the four hijackers apparently were overrun by the ship's crew — believed to be unarmed except for fire hoses — and forced to try a adopt a new strategy.
As the sun sank in late afternoon, a crew member called the Maersk line's offices to report, "We are safe," company CEO John F. Reinhart said at his Norfolk, Va., headquarters. But he said the call was cut off and "they did not say the pirates are off the vessel."
Around sunset off east Africa an unidentified crewman gave the Associated Press the news by satellite phone: The pirates still held Phillips.
Family members 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 response as a captain."
Phillips had talked the pirates 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."
The pirates and Phillips were now in one of the freighter's lifeboats off the side, Quinn said, while the American crew sought to free their captain with offers of food — without success.
"I always hoped it wasn't going to happen to us," Phillips' wife, Andrea, said later Wednesday at her Vermont home. "I just got an e-mail from him and knew he was heading into Mombasa. He had even made the comment that pirate activity was picking up."
The 17,000-ton Maersk Alabama was carrying food aid from USAID and other agencies to Kenya.
The hijackings, generating tens of millions in ransoms for the pirates, had eased this year, as a U.S.-led international naval force aggressively patrolled the Gulf of Aden. But on Saturday, the lull ended. A French tourist yacht and a German commercial ship were taken off the Somali coast. On Sunday, it was a Yemeni tug, and on Monday British and Taiwanese ships were seized.
Not including the incident involving the Maersk Alabama, pirates are 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 rocket propelled grenades, anti-tank rocket launchers and automatic weapons.
The USS Bainbridge arrived at the scene this morning, said Kevin Speers, a Maersk spokesman. He said the boat with the pirates was floating near the Maersk Alabama.
Speers said officials were waiting to see what happens when the sun comes up.
Information from the New York Times and the Associated Press was used in this report.