For 20 Mariners, an Extreme Test of Resolve

Crew members of the Maersk Alabama wave as they leave their ship and head for a hotel in Mombasa, Kenya. They are to be reunited with their captain today.
Crew members of the Maersk Alabama wave as they leave their ship and head for a hotel in Mombasa, Kenya. They are to be reunited with their captain today. (By Sayyid Azim -- Associated Press)
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

MOMBASA, Kenya, April 14 -- They had gone to sea for different reasons, some pursuing romantic notions of escape and adventure that over time turned into jobs -- fixing engines, pulling ropes, standing watch for hours -- that they loved or just tolerated.

A 70-year-old sailor who asked to be identified only as John had come out of retirement in Florida because of the economic crisis. Andrew Brzezinski, 62, had defied his father's wish that he become a doctor so that he could "see the world." First mate Shane Murphy's great-uncle had landed at Normandy on D-Day.

There was skinny A.T.M. Reza, the ship's engineer, and Richard Phillips, the captain, whom one sailor called a stubborn man "of great intestinal fortitude."

Last Wednesday, the 20 American crewmen of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship faced off against four young Somali pirates armed with assault rifles in a confrontation that tested the sailors' training, resolve and, less glamorously, their ability to withstand 10 hours in a stifling safe room where the temperature soared to 130 degrees.

Relaxing at a seaside resort here Tuesday -- a day before the crew was to reunite with Phillips, who was held by the pirates and rescued in a military operation Sunday -- two sailors added detailed accounts of the ordeal to the bits and pieces provided earlier by other crew members and military officials.

John, the former retiree, said he was offering his story in the hope that the United States would do more to combat the rampant piracy off Somalia's vast coast. On Tuesday, pirates defiantly seized four more vessels and at least 60 hostages, according to U.S. Navy officials, and news services reported an unsuccessful attack on a U.S.-flagged cargo ship carrying humanitarian aid.

"We have to get these senators and congressmen out of their nice air-conditioned offices and help us," John said.

The pirates had been tracking the Maersk Alabama for several days but kept running into huge waves, John said. The morning of the attack, though, "the seas were calm, like glass."

The ship's alarm sounded just after 7:15 a.m., a particular ring that told the crew the pirates were near. The men quickly did what Phillips had instructed them to do in the relentless drills that had made him a respected if difficult boss. One of the men cut the ship's engines. A few remained on the decks and in other spots. And as the pirates were boarding, about 15 minutes after the alarm, the rest of the crew headed deep into the ship and locked themselves in a safe room.

With the engines idle, it was dark, quiet and increasingly hot down there.

"After five hours, I couldn't breathe normally," Brzezinski said. "Each breath felt like fire."

The men stayed quiet, fearing they would be discovered. They stood around and, as it grew hotter, lay on the floor. Some slept. John peeled down his coveralls and fanned himself with a piece of cardboard. He said a little prayer.

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