Somali Pirates Hold American Captain Hostage

American crew takes ship back from Somali pirates in high seas drama.

ByABC News
April 8, 2009, 7:55 AM

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.