For 20 Mariners, an Extreme Test of Resolve
Sailors Describe How Crew of Cargo Ship Used Its Training to Resist Somali Pirates

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.

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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