American Captain 'Unharmed' in Lifeboat

Shipping company statement: "Radio contact" with ship, Navy indicates he's OK.

ByLuis Martinez, Kirit Radia, Martha Raddatz and Michele Mcphee
April 08, 2009, 7:55 AM

NAIROBI, Kenya, April 9, 2009 — -- The American ship captain who remained held hostage by pirates for a second day on a disabled lifeboat bobbing in the Indian Ocean apparently is unharmed, according to the shipping company for which he works.

"The captain remains with the pirates on the lifeboat within full visibility of the USS Bainbridge," a U.S. destroyer, the shipping company Maersk said in a statement released Thursday at 5 p.m. ET.

"The captain has been in touch with the crew [of his ship] and with the USS Bainbridge," the statement added. "He has radio contact and has been provided with additional batteries and provisions. The most recent communication indicates that the captain is unharmed."

The Maersk statement didn't say when Capt. Richard Phillips or the pirates holding him had last communicated.

The update about Phillips' condition came as the Department of Defense mulled releasing photos of the lifeboat taken during the standoff, sources said.

The four brazen pirates in the lifeboat with Phillips have indicated they intend to take Phillips to Somalia and hold him for ransom, despite the fact that their 28-foot boat is in need of gas, 300 miles from the Somalia coast, and in the shadow of the USS Bainbridge.

The stress of having her husband in such a perilous situation was clearly taking a toll on Phillips' wife. With a large number of reporters camped outside Phillips' Vermont home, Andrea Phillips asked a neighbor to plead with the press to leave.

"She's done very well under the circumstances, but right now she's just under enormous strain," said neighbor Michael Willard. He said Andrea Phillips was "overwhelmed" and "upset enough about her husband and his situation."

The high seas drama settled into a standoff after the pirates boarded the container ship Maersk Alabama Wednesday while firing AK-47 assault rifles, but were forced off the ship a short time later by the unarmed 20-member American crew who captured one of the pirates.

Phillips, 53, of Underhill, Vt., apparently prevented a bloody counterattack by the pirates by offering himself as a hostage. A prisoner exchange was arranged, but the pirates didn't keep their part of the bargain and refused to let the captain go free.

The U.S. government has mobilized, sending another warship, the Halyburton, to the area, and Gen. David Petreaus said the American military will increase its presence near the Horn of Africa within 48 hours. In addition, an FBI hostage negotiator team was mobilized to help deal with the delicate situation.

In its Thursday evening statement, Maersk declined to elaborate on what is already known about the incident.

"There have been many questions about how the crew re-captured the ship and how the captain came to leave the ship," the company's statement said. "Our immediate focus has been to bring the current situation to a safe resolution. There will be time for due diligence and retrospective review once we have the safe return of all parties and the opportunity for a full de-briefing.

"With regard to our involvement with federal agencies, we are in direct contact with all related agencies," the Maersk statement added. "In order to honor our commitment to the safety of all parties concerned, we have to refrain from commenting on specific activities."

Publicly, the Obama administration also has been restrained in its public comments. The president has declined to make any statement about the attack on an American crew and Attorney General Eric Holder said he didn't know whether the U.S. would prosecute the pirates if they are captured.

"It is a little early to tell at this point," Holder said. "There has not been an act of piracy, I think, against a United States vessel in hundreds of years. So I'm not sure exactly what would happen."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today that she was closely watching the situation and noted that, "Apparently, the lifeboat has run out of gas." Officials also said one of the pirates in the lifeboat was "seriously injured."

Meanwhile, Maersk officials have ordered the Alabama to leave the area and sail for Mombasa, Kenya. The Navy has put an 18-man security force on the Alabama for its trip to Mombasa. Officials said they believe other pirates are in the "general area."

A P-3 surveillance plane has been replaced with a drone keeping watch for the pirates' mother ship. A Defense official said the Bainbridge is not expected to take any action on the pirates in the lifeboat, but may take action if the mother ship shows up.

The stranded pirates demanded fuel, food supplies and radio batteries for a trip back to Somalia, but all they were given was extra batteries for their radio, officials said.

Details of Pirate Attack Emerge

Slowly, details of the Alabama's ordeal were revealed in conversations by crew members with their families.

After being repelled with water cannons on Tuesday, the pirates stalked the Alabama for another day and then attack again early Wednesday. This time, the pirates raked the deck with gunfire to keep the crew at bay and then clambered aboard, the ship's second in command Capt. Shane Murphy told his father Joseph Murphy.

A crew member was on the phone with the Maritime Trade Organization during the brief boarding battle and the call ended when someone with a non-American accent yelled, "Put the phone down," and the line went dead, the official told ABC News.

Phillips and his crew quickly disabled the Alabama. Phillips told his crew by radio to lock themselves in the ship's "safe room," a room prepared on many ships that sail through pirate infested waters where crew can hide out safely from pirates.

Second mate Ken Quinn told his wife Zoya by cellphone and e-mail that they could hear the pirates searching for them, she told the Associated Press.

"He said the pirates were desperate," Zoya Quinn of Bradenton, Fla., said. "They were going all over the stairs, back and forth, trying to find them and they couldn't find them."

At some point, the crew emerged and grabbed one of the pirates. There was apparently a struggle. Quinn told his wife that he later bandaged an injured pirate "because he was bleeding all over the ship," according to the AP.

The unarmed crew of the Alabama soon retook control of the ship, but Phillips apparently volunteered to be a hostage to prevent a bloody battle on the ship.

Phillips' sister-in-law, Gina Coggio, told "Good Morning America" today that she believes Phillips tried to save his crew from any pirate gunfire by volunteering to be their hostage.

"What I understand is he offered himself as the hostage to keep the rest of the crew safe," Coggio told "GMA." "That is what he would do, that's just who he is, and his responsibility as the captain."

Another sister-in-law, Lea Coggio, agreed. "That's my brother-in-law, thinking of his crew, ship and cargo as well. That's Richard."

That's when the stand-off began. The pirates, with Phillips in their custody, retreated to their skiff, but the engine wouldn't start. Keeping control of Phillips, they got into one of the Alabama's life boats and have been there since Wednesday.

Destroyer Made Contact With Somali Pirates

The Alabama's crew under chief officer Capt. Shane Murphy tried to end the stalemate with an exchange of hostages, but after the U.S. crew gave up their captured pirate, the other pirates apparently refused let Phillips go.

Murphy's mother, Marianne Murphy, told ABC News she was proud of her rough and tumble son for taking on the pirates.

"All those GI Joe dolls I bought him paid off," Marianne Murphy said.

Quinn told his wife the crew held one of the pirates for about 12 hours before releasing him in hopes of winning Phillips' freedom, adding that the crew communicated with the bandits with hand signals until they left with the captain.

Lea Coggio described Phillips, a former Boston cabbie, as a lovable daredevil.

"He liked going one-way streets the wrong way," Coggio said. "He's fun to be around, easygoing, lovable guy. ... There'll be a good story to tell when he gets through this, but on board it's serious business," she said.

Capt. Joseph Murphy, the father of Philips' second-in-command on the Alabama, teaches maritime cadets about piracy at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

"Capt. Phillips will survive, he'll be fine," Murphy told "GMA." "The pirates put themselves in a tenuous situation. They have to negotiate."

They are negotiating in the shadow of the Bainbridge's guns. A Defense Department official said the destroyer and the pirates' lifeboat are all within sight of each other.

Maersk spokesman Kevin Speers said, "We were hopeful because the Bainbridge was there."

"They are in control of the scene. ... We're happy they are there," Speers said.

The Bainbridge sent a small boat to the lifeboat to make contact with the pirates and the Alabama's captain, and then returned to the Bainbridge. Lea Coggio said the family was told that the lifeboat was provided with food and water.

The sailors' families back home were proud of their actions. Serena Murphy, the wife of Capt. Shane Murphy, praised her husband.

"He's very tough, he's very take-charge," she said Wednesday. "I have 100 percent confidence in him. He's quite a man."

Murphy took time out to call his wife Wednesday in middle of the crisis.

"I'm alive. I'm safe. I love you," Serena recalled him saying.

"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."

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."

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 brief capture of the Alabama marked the first time that American seamen have been seized by pirates who infest the shipping lanes off the east coast of Africa.

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."

Fifth Fleet on Pirate Patrol

The U.S. 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.

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' Jason Ryan and Anne Marie Dorning contributed to this report.

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