By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 12, 2009
MOMBASA, Kenya, April 11 -- The Maersk Alabama cargo ship docked at this Kenyan port city Saturday night, its American crew appearing tired but in high spirits, with some sailors leaning over the ship's railing to wave, ask for a beer and tell how they thwarted an attack by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean.
Facing a sea of reporters on the dock below, the sailors seemed most eager to identify their heroes, especially Capt. Richard Phillips, whom the pirates are still holding hostage in a lifeboat adrift in the ocean.
"He's very brave," one crew member shouted from the ship's deck as he went about his work. "Very, very brave."
As the 17,000-ton, blue-hulled ship motored to port -- appearing first as a collection of lights against a black sea and starry sky -- the pirates holding Phillips remained in a tense standoff with a growing collection of U.S. warships.
The USS Halyburton, a guided-missile frigate equipped with helicopters, joined the destroyer USS Bainbridge on Friday; the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer was on the way with missile launchers, attack planes and a crew of 1,000. The floating arsenal is facing down pirates thought to be armed with pistols and a few machine guns.
The FBI and the U.S. Navy are leading efforts to secure Phillips's release. "We continue to focus on negotiations and the number one priority of the safe and peaceful return of the captain," said Maj. Stewart Upton, a Pentagon spokesman.
Investigators and officials from Maersk Line, the ship's owner, were at hand as the vessel docked Saturday night.
John Reinhart, president of the company, described the ship as "a crime scene" and said investigators would debrief the sailors before they head home to their families in the United States. But they "won't consider it done when they board the plane and come home," Reinhart said at a news conference in Norfolk, Va.
"They won't consider it done until the captain is back, nor will we," he said.
A replacement crew will take over the Maersk Alabama, which arrived here with little apparent damage from the pirate attack other than some broken winches. Other ships attacked by pirates have arrived with unexploded grenades in their cargo and bullet holes in their hulls.
As the Maersk Alabama docked, crew members in blue coveralls tied ropes and radioed commands while Navy SEALs who escorted the ship to port hurried up and down the decks in camouflage and black Maersk Alabama baseball caps. Despite the gravity of the situation, there was an air of exuberance among some of the crew members.
"Give me a Tusker!" one of the sailors shouted to reporters, referring to a Kenyan beer.
"Hey! This guy's a hero," said another sailor, pointing to the ship's chief engineer, A.T.M. Reza, who apparently lured one of the pirates into the engine room, where he or the captain subdued him. The captive pirate was used as a bargaining chip in an attempt to get the attackers to release the captain, who had given himself up to lure the pirates off the ship. But the plan went awry.
"He led 'em down into the engine room," said the sailor, smiling at Reza. "It was hot down there."
Other sketchy details spilled out -- that the pirates scaled up the side of the ship with a rope and began firing into the air. Asked how he felt when he saw the pirates, one sailor replied, "Scared." The first thing he will do when he gets home, he said, is "hug my wife and my kids -- my two boys."
The seizure of the Maersk Alabama was the first such incident involving a U.S. ship in recent memory, but piracy off Somalia's coast has been escalating for years. Experts said the pirates began attacking small fishing trawlers, saying it was in retaliation for the widespread illegal fishing in waters near Somalia. These days, the pirates use Global Positioning System devices and other sophisticated equipment to snag bigger, faster ships. Their more spectacular booty has included the Ukrainian MV Faina, which was hauling tanks and other heavy weapons, and the Sirius Star, a Saudi oil tanker that is the largest ship ever seized.
The pirates rarely harm their hostages, trading them for millions in ransom.
On Saturday, pirates seized an Italian tugboat pulling barges off Somalia's northern coast in the Gulf of Aden.
"The pirates are now becoming more daring every day," said Twalib Khamis, the Kenya Ports Authority's harbor master here, who said Mombasa receives smaller ships every week whose crews have fended off Somali pirates.
"They are, of course, traumatized," he said, referring to the other crews. "A number of crews refused to sail again because of these attacks."
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson in Washington contributed to this report.