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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)

They heard footsteps and voices on the deck above. The Somalis, some of whom spoke some English, were yelling commands. They heard a gunshot, which they later learned was a pirate shooting alongside the head of one of the crew members -- John said it was Reza -- after he refused to reveal where his shipmates were hiding. A few times, the captain's voice came over the intercom, instructing the crew to come up.

"The captain called us many times -- 'All crew immediately on the bridge,' " Brzezinski said. But the crew was skeptical of the command. "Then they started searching for us," he said.

With an AK-47 assault rifle pointed at him, a crew member led a pirate below deck, but by a circuitous route that bypassed his shipmates' hiding places. As they passed the engineering room, Reza and some other crewmen jumped the pirate.

"He's very small, he's the last fellow you'd expect to be a real hero," John said of Reza.

The men tied up the young Somali, blindfolded him and gagged him. When he tried to break away, a sailor put a foot on his neck. Then they took him to the safe room.

"He was kind of crying," John said of the young man, who he speculated must be "like Robin Hood" to his friends and family back home.

After a while, Phillips, still above deck and with a rifle held to his back almost the entire time, began negotiating. Eventually, he persuaded the pirates to leave using the ship's lifeboat. The deal was that the captain would get into the lifeboat to help the pirates lower it and start it, the crew would give up the hostage pirate, and then the pirates would let the captain go.

But once the hostage climbed down the ship's pilot ladder into the lifeboat, the pirates started the engine and took off with the captain, Brzezinski said. Phillips had a radio, and the first mate, Murphy, called many times.

"He said: 'Where are you guys going? Come back,' " Brzezinski said, adding that Phillips's voice remained calm. "We just wanted to do something to stop them."

Though the pirates had demanded that the ship follow them to the Somali shore, the crew circled the lifeboat instead, and after a few hours the small craft ran out of gas. Around midnight, the USS Bainbridge destroyer arrived.

Brzezinski went to sleep. When he woke up, he said, the Maersk Alabama was headed for Mombasa, following instructions from the U.S. military. The ship docked here Saturday night.

"Everybody was mad," he said, describing the mood on the ship.

After a five-day standoff, Phillips was freed Sunday. By Tuesday, the crew was released from the Maersk Alabama, where the sailors had been held for security reasons. The men spent much of the day in shorts, milling under the palm trees around a hotel on the beach here, drinking beer or shopping for souvenirs. Some of them had known each other from previous jobs, but most had been strangers before this tour.

"We know each other by trust more than anything," John said.

Brzezinski said he would probably work on another ship after a rest at his home in Brockton, Mass., outside Boston. He said he'd think twice about accepting a route in waters off Somalia.

John said he is considering taking up some other type of work, possibly teaching young people back home how to fix air conditioners.

Staff writer Ian Shapira in Washington contributed to this report.

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