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Attacked at Sea: Maersk Crew Member Speaks
"We stuck together, and we did our jobs. And that's how we did it.'

John Cronan
3rd Engineer, Maersk Alabama Cargo Ship
Tuesday, April 21, 2009 3:00 PM

U.S. Merchant Mariner John Cronan, 3rd Engineer on the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, which was attacked on the high-seas April 8 by pirates off the coast of Somalia, was online Tuesday, April 21, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss his experiences and the rescue of the crew by Navy SEALS.

Cronan is a member of the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association (MEDA) union.

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John Cronan: Hi. This is John Cronan from the Maersk Alabama and I'm looking forward to your questions.

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Cruise ships defense vs. cargo ships: I was on a cruise ship and was amazed not at the level of security and but the weapons and arsenal on the ship. I was pretty amazed to see employees with automatic weapons, e.g, AK-47 type.

Likelihood of the same security coming up on cargo ships?

John Cronan: It's certainly being talked about at this time and I'm really looking forward to that happening.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: What protections, if any, against pirates were on board? What is the protocol you take when you realize there is a pirate ship near?

John Cronan: At the time we had fire hoses rigged and tied off to the railing. That's all we had. As far as precautions go, we had satellite communications so distress calls were placed immediately.

We sound the alarm which is a systematic ringing of the ship's bells and PA announcements and that's what we do. I heard the bells and I heard the captain's (Capt. Phillips) voice on the PA.

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Basic Question: I must admit that I don't understand something very basic. How do the pirates board the ship? They're in small boats and the container ships are huge. Is it grappling hooks and hand-over-hand climbing? Do they first fire warning shots? Do they sneak on board in the middle of the night?

John Cronan: Yes to all of the above. At the time we had a full load of cargo and so therefore we weren't that high out of the water -- I guess the main deck was probably about 15 feet above the water line. It's not that difficult, these fellows are young and athletic and agile.

I was awakened about 7:00 in the morning by the alarm and I grabbed my flashlight and pocket knife and the photograph of my two daughters and folded it up and put it in my pocket. I didn't want that picture to fall into the wrong hands, I knew I would need it for support.

The captain kept us informed by PA and by walkie-talkie so knew what was going on. In the beginning I didn't see it all because I went to the engine room. We knew they had made their way up to the bridge and at that point we were manning various stations below deck. So were were able to know what was going on by walkie-talkie communication. At this point I didn't know if anyone had been shot.

And that began a long, challenging day. It was some 33 hours before we were assured we were getting any help from the U.S. military.

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Alexandria, Va.: Some folks argue that arming commercial vessels could escalate the level of violence if a commercial ship is boarded/attacked by pirates. What are your thoughts on this?

John Cronan: Let them experience a pirate attack and perhaps they will change their opinions. In my 25 years of experience I'd been on a ship that was boarded some years ago but that was just a basic armed robbery and I slept through the whole thing. This time these fellows were intent on hijacking the ship and kidnapping the crew for ransom.

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Fayetteville, Ark.: Were any anti-boarding devices used on your vessel? In your opinion, should non-lethal devices such as sound cannons or electrical shock be used to avoid an unauthorized boarding? Should lethal weapons be used on merchant vessels?

John Cronan: The only anti-boarding devices we had were fire hoses and warning alarms and locks on the doors. Non-lethal devices are not adequate against an armed attacker. I believe that lethal force should be used and it's not the first time the U.S. Merchant Marine has had to deal with this. Take the Second World War for example. My father started shipping in the convoys and they were armed and had armed escort.

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Austin, Tex.: How well coordinated did the pirate attack appear to be? Were the attacking pirates in contact with other pirates at land or sea?

John Cronan: Very organized. Some three days prior we had a visit by a small boat with just one man aboard. Several of the shipmates tried to laugh it off; however, I believe that was a recon mission. I believe he was sent to observe and photograph our ship. He just pulled up his boat in our wake, did what he had to do, and peeled off in broad daylight.

My feeling is that these people are experienced boatmen and fishermen, that's their way of life. They have considerable experience on the water.

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Southern Maryland: Hey, John. Typically, the masters of U.S. ships have access to a sidearm. Did Capt. Phillips?

John Cronan: I don't know. It's not proper shipboard protocol to ask. That's his business, not mine.

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NYC: First, welcome home and glad you made it back in one piece! I read that the surviving pirate told you all that he was doing this for money and that people in Somalia have nothing to eat. It made me wonder if there were any moments of shared humanity amongst the pirates and the crew or if it was all tense and hostile the entire time. Also, given your experience, just curious if you have any sympathy for their plight at all? And given what you may have taken in from the surviving pirate, would you have any clue why he was smiling so broadly when had his perp walk in New York? Think he's enjoying his 15 mins?

John Cronan: They're very poor and I sympathize with their plight until they attack my home and disrupted my family's piece of mind. And let's not forget that the fellows we as Americans call patriots were terrorists in the eyes of the British. The reason he was smiling? I don't know for sure, maybe he was just enjoying his 15 minutes.

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Davidson, N.C.: Are shipping companies routing ships around the Cape of Good Hope to avoid the pirates, or does it still make financial sense to go through the Suez Canal? Are Maersk and other companies more concerned about saving money by taking the risk of hijacking or protecting their crews?

John Cronan: Let me best answer that by saying, I'm a believer in capitalism, it's the best system going. Yes, we are staying further off the coast, however, the pirates are coming out further.

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New York: Thank you for a fascinating discussion. You said in a previous answer," It was some 33 hours before we were assured we were getting any help from the U.S. military." Why did it take that long? How long did it take for the Navy to show up? Thanks again, John.

John Cronan: That's a very complicated question and at this time it's not my place to speculate. More will be revealed later.

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Upstate New York: In your opinion, is there any effective way to protect commercial ships from pirate attack without arming the crew? It seems like the ships have an advantage with the size and height of the hull -- can you erect barbed wire, electric fence, or some other obstacle to prevent/deter boarding?

John Cronan: Yes, they're all good options and are being discussed at this time.

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Tel Aviv, Israel: What exactly impressed you the most in this daring rescue operation? Was it speed, stealth, precision or all of the above?

In particular, do you think that the risk taken was worth the price paid had the outcome been entirely different.

I just hope that you know now that the success or failure in these types of rescue operations is measured in a split of a second.

John Cronan: Yes to all of the above. However, what impressed me most was the solidarity of my shipmates. We all displayed bravery and courage and we all performed multiple tasks above and beyond our regular duties. Let's not forget that we did not "retake" the ship because we never surrendered the ship to begin with.

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New York: John, did the pirates seem in control, or did you fear at any point they might become desperate and start shooting? It's been reported that these guys are interested only in money, and not killing. Was this your impression?

John Cronan: On the record, yes, I believe they were only interested in the money; however, I saw fear in their eyes when they realized that we were not an easy target. It concerned me and I didn't know what to expect.

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Portland, Ore.: Why don't merchant ships form up in convoys with a military escort in this part of the world?

John Cronan: Good question. We need to look into that.

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Alexandria, Va.: During your ordeal it was mentioned several times that American ships did not usually have problems with pirates.

Was that the case until your ship? Why did the pirates stay away from American ships?

Could be they didn't want to get killed by snipers? Seriously -- is the U.S. the only country that has taken the pirate situation seriously?

Thank you and all the nest next time out.

John Cronan: The American Merchant Marine is not what it used to be. Due to foreign competition and unfair practices we just don't have that many ships out there anymore. Reflagging and outsourcing of jobs is destroying our way of life. (To explain reflagging: the ship owner will use what's called a "flag of convenience" to evade American safety inspection and labor for profit motives.)

The flags of Panama and Liberia are ruling the high-seas now.

When they found out they were aboard an American ship they initially believed they had hit the jackpot. We don't normally fly flags at sea because they just get messed up so the pirates didn't have a clear indication that it was an American ship. On the stern of the ship was just the vessel's name and point of registry which was Norfolk and if they could even read it I doubt they'd know that Norfolk was in the U.S.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi John, Glad you are all home safely. Have you all had a chance to spend time with Capt. Phillips since he was rescued? Also, can you offer us any details as to how you captured the surviving pirate? Thanks!

John Cronan: No, we haven't seen Capt. Phillips and we're respecting his right to privacy and to enjoy time with his family and out of respect, we'll wait for him to contact us.

I'm not sure, I believe that pirate surrendered himself to the U.S. Navy.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi John,

I've read some reports that pirates often live lavish, albeit short-lived, "famous" life-styles with large homes, nice cars, etc., but it sounds like from your perspective, these guys looked poor and hungry. What's your take on this?

John Cronan: They appeared to me to have lived a hard life and although I've never been to Somalia I've traveled extensively in Third World and I'd rather be a poor man in America than a rich man over there.

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Washington DC: Welcome back Mr. Cronan. BTW my father was a merchant marine engineer during WW II, and often wished he had stayed in that career. I was under the impression that very few ships are currently crewed by Americans, do you know how many? And had you received any anti-piracy training before your ordeal?

John Cronan: Not many and not enough. Yes, we had a bit of training and we do run shipboard drills.

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Warrenton, Va.: When the captain jumped overboard away from the pirates, do you think the Navy should have taken action then instead of waiting till the last moment?

John Cronan: I can't go there. It's not my place to be a Monday morning quarterback.

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Virginia: The International Maritime Bureau's annual piracy report stated that the South China Sea and Asian waters are much worse than Africa with pirates. your thoughts?

John Cronan: Good question. They're both bad neighborhoods.

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Providence, R.I.: John, thanks for the discussion. What kind of tasks were the crew performing during the crisis that would have been above and beyond their normal duties?

John Cronan: I acted as a lookout, helmsman and short order cook. Along with my regular duties in the engineering department. My normal duties call for me to be something of a jack of all trades. I'm a welder, a diesel engine mechanic and plumber, etc. We all chipped in.

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Fairfax, Va.: Did the pirates speak English?

John Cronan: Yes, the pirates were able to communicate in broken English.

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John Cronan: And we were able to reply what we expected of them.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Do you think the captured pirate is actually 16 years old like his dad claims? Also, do you feel that the attacks will escalate into more violence.

John Cronan: They were young however I believe they were well into their 20s, including the captured one, from what I saw of them.

Let's hope that we can use diplomacy instead of violence.

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John Cronan: Thank you for the intelligent questions. I've been a reader of the Washington Post for many years. Let's be thankful for freedom of the press and God bless America.

As I said on Larry King, in answer to his question as to whether or not I will return to sea, I said, "The old World War II poster said 'You bet I'm going back to sea.' But my wife and I agree that the Staten Island ferry is now much more appealing.

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