Four Americans aboard a hijacked yacht off the coast of Somalia were killed by their pirate captors Tuesday, touching off a firefight with a U.S. warship, military officials said.
The Americans were sailing the world on a Christian mission to distribute bibles when they were ambushed Feb. 18 by pirates in dangerous waters nearly 300 miles off the Somali coast. On board the yacht were Jean and Scot Adam from California and Phyllis MacKay and Bob Riggle from Washington state.
U.S. forces and at least one Navy warship that had been tracking the yacht for three days and negotiating with the captors responded to gunfire at approximately 1 a.m. ET Tuesday morning.
American military forces killed two pirates aboard the vessel when they responded to gunfire that was believed to have killed the American yachters. The American forces captured 13 pirates and found the remains of two additional pirates. It is now believed that 19 pirates were involved in the kidnapping.
Nina Crossland, a niece of Phyllis MacKay, said today at a news conference that she had been told her aunt was wounded but alive when the U.S. military boarded the Quest, but died shortly after. Officials have confirmed that two of the Americans onboard the Quest were still alive when the military found them.
"It's a shock," Crossland said. "My family is trying to come together to deal with this tragedy."
Crossland said her aunt was merely a sailor on the boat and was not involved with passing out Bibles. The Adams were known to carry and distribute Bibles along their journeys, according to reports.
U.S. forces responded to a rapidly deteriorating situation onboard the Quest and thought immediate action was necessary to save the lives of the hostages, authorities said. The pirates fired an RPG at the USS Sterett, the American ship most closely monitoring the yacht. At the time the first shot were heard on board the Quest, the Americans were negotiating with the pirates and had two of them onboard the Sterett.
It was unclear what the negotiations covered, but a military official said the pirates were attempting to make their way back to the Somali coast. According to one official, the killings of the Americans onboard came as a surprise since the pirates' demeanor had been described as "calm."
A military official said small arms fire was detected by the US forces on the yacht and that it was not directed at the USS Sterett.
It was only after the gunfire was detected, according to the military official, that U.S. special ops forces boarded the Quest and engaged the pirates. Until weapons were fired at the Quest , U.S. forces did not assault the yacht, according to the official.
A timeline released today noted that one of the two pirates killed by special operations forces below deck was killed by a knife. The other was shot.
"As [U.S. Forces] responded to the gunfire, reaching and boarding the Quest, the forces discovered all four hostages had been shot by their captors. Despite immediate steps to provide life-saving care, all four hostages ultimately died of their wounds," according to a statement released by U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida.
"We express our deepest condolences for the innocent lives callously lost aboard the Quest," said Gen James N. Mattis, U.S. Central Command commander.