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Engineer on ship seized by pirates says crew tried to rescue captain

RIVERVIEW — Capt. Richard Phillips may have been brave when Somali pirates hijacked the ship he was navigating through the Indian Ocean. But he did not offer himself as a hostage to save his crew.

That story, widely disseminated by media and celebrated on social networking sites, isn't true, said the ship's chief engineer, Michael Perry, who lives in Riverview.

And although it has inspired a nation and fueled virtual fan groups, Perry, 60, wants people to know the truth. The real account is much more complicated.

It isn't Phillips' fault, Perry said. The rumors started when he was still a hostage.

A woman who picked up the phone at Phillips' house said they weren't talking to reporters.

Instead, Perry wants to tell the story of the crew, the men who were almost baked alive in an unventilated room as pirates roamed the ship. Those men worked hard to save their captain, Perry said, even though they suffered from heat exhaustion.

It all started when a siren went off just before 7 a.m. on April 8.

The pirates were closing in on the ship, the Maersk Alabama.

"One pirate's on board," Phillips called out over the radio.

A pause.

"Two pirates are on board."

Then, "the bridge has been compromised."

Phillips and three others had been taken hostage. The pirates had AK-47s, and the crew was unarmed.

Perry shut down the controls, the electricity, the ventilation. Everything. The corridors became dark. He had to count his steps and hold out his arms to get around.

Most of the crew hid in a secure room. Perry and a few others grabbed food and makeshift weapons and spied on the pirates, communicating over ever-changing radio frequencies.

The pirates were getting frustrated. They wanted the rest of the crew.

A few hours later, hostage crewman A.T.M. Reza and a pirate walked near Perry. The pirate was searching for the crew, and he had brought Reza to help him.

Perry said he tried to sneak up from behind to tackle the pirate, but the pirate saw him and chased him. Perry hid around a dark corner and grabbed the man when he got close. He held the pirate's right hand tight and pressed a pocketknife to his throat.

The serrated edge pressed into his jugular.

"He was screaming and screaming," Perry said.

His instinct was to kill, but Perry said he didn't because the pirate was submissive.

Instead, Reza and Perry tied the captive up and put him in the room with the rest of the crew.

When the pirates heard, they were furious, Perry said. They demanded to talk to him over the radio. Perry allowed a quick exchange.

Up on the bridge, a deal was made.

The plan: The pirates would hand over Phillips in exchange for the captured pirate, the man who Perry now believes was the leader. His name is Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse, and he later surrendered and is now in New York facing international criminal charges.

The pirates got into another boat with Phillips, and Muse was brought to them. The problem: The pirates didn't return Phillips to the ship.

When the pirates were gone, the crew came out of hiding, drenched in sweat, and regained control of the ship. The room they had been in was at least 120 degrees, Perry said.

"Every one of them should have been admitted to the emergency room," Perry said. They seemed to suffer from heat exhaustion and dehydration, he said.

But no one complained. They tried to chase the pirates to get Phillips back, Perry said. Eventually, the Navy got involved and told the crew to leave for security reasons. They headed to Mombasa, Kenya.

After four days, Navy SEAL sharpshooters killed the pirates and Phillips was rescued. He and many of the other crewmen were welcomed back to the United States as heroes.

Perry tried to fly under the radar. The only reason he's telling his story now is so the truth is told and the crew gets credit, he said at his Riverview home, as he lounged in the sun.

He was back in his ranch-style house, tanning in his red Speedo swim trunks. He had just returned from a ride on his plush Goldwing motorcycle.

He's enjoying the three months off before he heads back to work in the merchant marine. He doesn't plan to retire for at least another three years, although his children worry about him.

He'll probably spend part of his time off traveling to New York on his beloved motorcycle. He wants to trace the history of his religion, that of the Latter-day Saints.

And maybe he'll learn an instrument — the piano or guitar, he said. He just wants to do something out of the ordinary.

"It's time to learn something new in life," he said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

Engineer on ship seized by pirates says crew tried to rescue captain 04/24/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 24, 2009 11:11pm]
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