NAIROBI, Kenya, April 8, 2009 -- High drama unfolded on the high seas today as a cargo ship with a crew of 20 Americans sailing off the coast of Somalia was hijacked by a group of armed pirates. Even after the unarmed sailors overpowered the Somali pirates and reclaimed control of their vessel, pirates managed to take the ship's captain hostage.
The destroyer U.S.S. Bainbridge has arrived on the scene of the cargo ship, a defense official tells ABC News. The Navy warship came equipped with a seahawk helicopter and small boats to send boarding parties.
A spokesman from the ship company Maersk, which owns the hijacked vessel, say they've had contact with the ship's crew and they're tired, but safe.
The crew was in contact with the pirates, but officials were waiting to determine how to proceed with the negotiations at daybreak.
The pirate mother ship also is in the vicinity, a defense official said.
A crew member told CNN this afternoon that Capt. Richard Phillips was on the ship's lifeboat with negotiations ongoing. He said the crew tried to exchange the captain for a captive pirate, but apparently the pirates reneged on the deal.
With Phillips held hostage, 34-year-old Shane Murphy, the ship's chief officer, is in charge, his wife Serena Murphy told ABC News today.
"He's very tough, he's very take-charge," she said. "I have 100 percent confidence in him. He's quite a man."
Serena Murphy received a call from her husband this afternoon, at which point he said, "I'm alive. I'm safe. I love you," Serena recalled.
"He said, 'I'm negotiating for the safe return of the captain," Serena told ABC News. "It's going to be a little hectic for the next two to three hours."
Serena was holding her 8-month-old son, Jason, in her arm in the front yard of the couple's Seekonk, Mass., home when the call came, she said. They also have a 3-year-old son, Dylan.
The crew turned the tables on the pirates who hijacked their ship after a high seas chase. Once overpowered by the crew, the pirates tried to board their skiff, but the motor wasn't working, a Defense Department official told ABC News. The pirates are now in one of the ship's lifeboats with the ship's captain in their custody.
The Defense official added that there are no pirates on board the ship.
In an interview last month, Murphy talked about the danger faced by cargo ships from pirates.
"All the vessels transiting the areas are on heightened watch capabilities. Everyone is prepared. They are putting up as much of a defense as they can," he said. "There is no telling when or where the attacks are going to happen and the amount of vessels that transit the area, it is impossible to patrol them all. ... The difference with the Somali pirates is they are more just armed thugs or bandits and they are ruled by the law of the gun in that country now."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concern for the safety of the crew.
"We're deeply concerned. We're following it very closely," Clinton said at a meeting at the State Department. "More specifically, we are now focused on this particular act of piracy and the seizure of the ship that carries 21 American citizens. More generally, we think the world must come together to end the scourge of piracy."
President Obama, who first learned of the hijacking situation shortly after returning to the United States Tuesday night, emphasized his extreme concern for the security of the crew, according to a senior administration official.
At the State Department this afternoon, acting spokesman Robert Wood said the situation was "fluid at the moment," adding, "I'm seeing contradictory reports."
Wood added that he could not confirm reports of a U.S. diplomat on board the ship.
"I can just confirm that I think there were 20 American citizens on board," Wood said.
Somali Pirates Face-Off with American Crew
The pirates went after the Maersk Alabama, a 17,000 ton container ship carrying relief aid to Mombasa, Kenya.
The pirates attacked the Alabama, formerly named the Maersk Alva, in the Indian Ocean about 300 miles from the Somali coast.
The ship was under the command of Phillips, of Underhill, Vt. Both Phillips and Murphy are graduates of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and Murphy's father, Capt. Joseph Murphy is a professor at the academy.
Today, Joseph Murphy told ABC News that his son had called to say the crew had regained control of the ship. Murphy said his son and other crewmembers used "brute force" to overpower the pirates who were armed with AK-47 assault rifles.
"From what I understand, there was a considerable amount of gunfire to ward off the crew from the main deck," Murphy said. "The problem is [that] once they get on the deck of the ship, there's really nothing a crew can do because they're unarmed."
The crew of the Alabama turned the pirate raid into a long, running battle.
A Defense Department official said the pirates first tried to board the Alabama Tuesday morning. The crew contacted the British Maritime Trade Organization which advised the crew to take evasive action and turn their powerful firehoses on the pirates' skiff.
The tactic succeeded in repelling the pirates and the Alabama broke away, the Defense official said.
Almost 24 hours later, the pirates tried to board a second time. The crew again called the British Maritime Organization during a 15-minute struggle with the pirates. The pirates came aboard firing their AK-47s, Shane Murphy told his father.
The call to the Maritime Trade Organization ended when someone with a non-American accent yelled, "Put the phone down," and the line went dead, the official told ABC News.
Four pirates were reported to be aboard the Alabama and they almost immediately demanded a ransom, although it was now known how much they wanted, the Defense official said.
The ship was "dead in the water" and operating on auxiliary power because the crew had disabled the ship shortly after the pirates boarded. It had food and fuel for 30 to 45 days, indicating the negotiations could be a long haul, the official said.
It wasn't such a long haul after all. Hours later reports came back that the crew was back in control of the Alabama.
Maersk President Can't Confirm Crew Retakes Ship
Midday Wednesday, John Reinhart, president of Maersk Line Co., cautiously declined to confirm that the crew had taken the ship back.
"We had a communication about an hour and a half ago from the vessel that said the crew was safe," he said about 12:15 p.m.
"He did not say they had taken back the vessel," Reinhart said. "Called to let you know we are all safe right now and then the call was cut off."
He also said that the crew was unarmed and he did not expect them to battle pirates.
"Once boarded, the crew has safe rooms and they're not to take on active engagement because they have no weapons, it would be a risk to their lives," Reinhart said. "They'd be outgunned."
'It would be inappropriate for them to try to be heros," he added. "We want them to come home safely."
Before the ship was recaptured, the hijacking caused international alarm.
The White House issued a statement saying, "The White House is closely monitoring the apparent hijacking of the U.S.-flagged ship in the Indian Ocean and assessing a course of action to resolve this situation. Our top priority is the personal safety of the crew members on board."
Andrew Mwangura of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Program also confirmed the ship's seizure to ABC News and said the crew is reported to be "safe." Mwangura said it is the first time he can recall that American seamen have been seized off the pirate-infested Somali coastline.
Mwangura could not recall the last time Americans were captured by pirates. "Over 100 years ago," was his estimate.
"To take away an American ship is not easy," Mwangura said. "Maersk is a big company, with good security and good management. It's one of the companies with proper security training for seamen."
Destroyer Bainbridge Heads to Hijacking Location
The U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, said the ship was seized at 7:30 a.m. local time in the Indian Ocean, about 240 nautical miles east of the Somali town of Eyl. There was a U.S. Navy warship 300 nautical miles away when the Alabama was boarded, but the Navy is not discussing what operations its ships in the area might be undertaking in the wake of the attack.
A Defense Department official told ABC News that the U.S. destroyer Bainbridge will arrive at the location where the Alabama was captured tonight. The official said the Bainbridge intended to get close enough to the container ship to be able to monitor the situation.
The Bainbridge was not expected to take any military action, the official said, because the shipping line had indicated it would handle the crisis through negotiations with the pirates and the Navy usually defers to the ship owners as to what course of action will be taken.
Roger Middleton, Somali piracy expert from the London-based think tank Chatham House, said the capture of American sailors "puts the stakes much higher, and the U.S. will be watching them very closely."
For the pirates, "this is not necessarily a bad thing, as Americans are more valuable than say Fillippinos or even Brits. Their ransom demands will be commensurately higher, but it comes at a much higher risk."
Fifth Fleet heads an international naval task force to deter piracy off the coast of Somalia. The European Union and NATO also have naval task forces in the area to combat pirates. Just Tuesday, they issued a new warning to mariners in the region about increased pirate activity.
Mwangura said the attack on the Maersk Alabama demonstrates the change in the pirates' tactics by attacking ships away from the Gulf of Aden to the Indian Ocean where most of the Navy task force is concentrated. The pirates are now hunting in the Indian Ocean east and south-east of the Somali and Kenyan coastline.
Five Ships Seized in 48 Hours
Maersk Alabama was the sixth ship to be taken hostage in five days, and five of them have been captured in the last 48 hours.
At least three have been hijacked near the Seychelles Islands, some 400 miles south of the Somali coastline, and well out of the range of the Gulf of Aden where the Navy is patrolling.
The day before the Alabama was hijacked, Serena Murphy received an e-mail from her husband that the ship in front of them had been captured by pirates.
"It's something Shane always talked about," she said. "They are out there and there's a constant threat of pirates and they don't have anything to protect themselves with.
The ships are not armed," she said. "He thinks they should be allowed to arm themselves."
A U.S. Defense Department official said one reason there has been a sudden increase in the number of seizures is because the waters off of Africa's east coast have become calmer following an extended period of choppy waters.
But Middleton thought the sudden jump in pirate activity is due to a change in their strategy.
"The weather is definitely a factor, but I don't think the main one," Middleton said. "It seems the pirates would be operating from a mother ship far out at sea away from the military presence, further out in the Indian Ocean where there is a freer environment for them to operate in."
Somali pirates, armed with rocket propelled grenades and plying the seas in small, fast craft, have thrived in recent years in the chaos of a country with no working government and have collected tens of millions of dollars in ransom from shipping companies for the safe return of the their vessels and crews.
The pirate attacks have surged in recent months, however, and gained global attention after pirates grabbed a ship loaded with Russian tanks, rocket propelled grenades and other assault-type weapons.
That attack was followed by the seizure of a Saudi supertanker laden with millions of dollars worth of crude oil.
Both ships were eventually freed after lengthy negotiations and air drops of ransoms that contained millions of dollars in cash.
ABC News' Sean Duffy, Kirit Radia and Zoe Magee contributed to this report.