Passengers Claim Crew Totally Overwhelmed

When pirates attacked the cruise ship MSC Melody on Saturday, the captain was making small talk at the bar. Passengers have given a version of events that is more dramatic than the crew's accounts. They were the first to defend the ship and they are now criticizing the crew, who have been portrayed as heroes.

Ciro Pinto was certain he was right. The captain was relaxed as he enjoyed a drink at the bar of the MSC Melody cruise ship, chatting on Saturday afternoon with two South African passengers. The women asked him if the bands of marauding pirates posed a problem for the cruise. Never, the experienced seaman told them. After all, the ship was far -- 1,000 sea miles -- away from the Somali coast as it made its course across the Indian Ocean, a few hundred miles south of the Seychelles, on a 22-day cruise from Durban, South Africa, to Genoa, Italy. It was unimaginable, virtually impossible even, that flip-flop wearing pirates could attack them here.

But the small talk came to an abrupt end. According to eyewitnesses, two passengers came screaming into the bar and gesticulated wildly as they addressed the captain. A speed boat had appeared at the stern and several armed men were preparing to board the cruise ship, they said. One was already trying to scale the vessel. Several passengers were desperately grabbing deck chairs and tables and hurling them down at the men trying to board the ship.

That's when the first shots were fired. It was also the point at which the captain understood what was happening -- his ship was being attacked by pirates.

Pinto radioed an alarm code to his crew and ordered all passengers to go below deck, immediately. He then ran to the bridge. The pirates continued to try to board the ship. Pinto opened the safe and handed pistols to the security guards on board. He then called on the helmsman to steer the ship on a zig-zag course to fend off the pirates by creating large waves. The security guards, who by then had arrived at the ship's stern, fired two warning shots into the air.

Within a few minutes, the acute danger appeared to have been averted. The fact that the cruise ship's crew were armed apparently surprised the pirates. According to the account given by the MSC Cruises company, the pirates then rode away in their speedboat, but not before firing a few salvos at the ship with their AK-47 rifles. Window panes were shattered and bullets thudded into the ship's side.

"It was like war," the captain proudly announced on an Italian radio station the next morning. The crew and security personnel had defended themselves from the attack professionally, he said.

"You Can't Hold Back Pirates with Tables and Chairs"

This may read like the script of a Hollywood thriller, but new reports from eyewitnesses show that the attack on Saturday evening was considerably more dramatic than accounts provided so far would suggest. Pierfrancesco Vago, head of the Italian shipping company MSC, confirmed the version that cruise ship passengers gave to SPIEGEL ONLINE, describing their statements as "authentic."

The new details show just how close the ship came to getting hijacked. "We were professional," Vago says, rather openly, "but we were also lucky."

He calls it luck. But passenger Jules Tayler, who was on the ship's afterdeck, calls it "pure chance."

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