MOMBASA, Kenya, April 29, 2009— -- 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."
Initially, no one noticed the ship was being attacked. The first warning came when a woman intuitively leaned over the railing in semidarkness and noticed something when she peered down. She suddenly turned to her fellow passengers and said: "Yikes, there's a small boat next to us!"
Tayler and the others rushed to the railing and also saw what he described as five or six men sitting in a roofless pirate boat. One started climbing a rope to the deck beneath them. "He was already halfway up," says Tayler. One passenger screamed: "Pirates!"
Without hesitation, passengers began to grab whatever they could find around them. "We immediately began throwing tables and deck chairs at the rope," said Tayler. One hit a pirate scaling it. He fell off and the boat turned around, Tayler recalls.
The skirmish between the passengers and the pirates lasted for several minutes, he says. Suddenly, the pirates opened fire -- Tayler says he counted three salvos of 25 to 30 rounds each.
Again and again, the pirate boat would approach the ship and disappear under the stern, only to reemerge. Tayler and his fellow passengers continued to throw chairs despite the gunfire. One passenger was shot in the leg and one bullet grazed the head of a crew member. The armed security staff finally turned up six to eight minutes into the skirmish, passengers claim.
Eyewitness Rolf R.* who spoke to SPIEGEL ONLINE about the attack over the weekend, and Jules Tayler say they are certain that the fact that chairs and tables were thrown at the pirates saved the ship. If a single armed pirate had managed to board the ship, he would easily have been able to take hostage the 600 passengers who were listening to a classical music concert in another part of the ship at the time of the incident, Rolf R. says. "The crew was totally overwhelmed and no one knew how to ring the alarm," passenger Tayler, a Brit currently residing in South Africa, says.
MSC chief Vago puts it differently: "The passengers obstructed the attackers, but they were scared off by shots from our security people."
Captain Pinto, who has been celebrated in the press as a hero, reported details of the attack to the passengers on Monday. He seemed to almost be poking fun at them. "You can't hold back pirates with chairs and tables," he told the assembled passengers.
"It was only through the exemplary work of his crew and he himself that the ship was able to fend off the pirates," cruise passenger Rolf R. recalls the captain as saying. Pinto, it seems, relished his role as a hero.
Why the Ship's Passengers Don't Think Captain Pinto Was a Hero
Rolf R. says more than a few passengers are irritated by the captain's posturing, and they in no way view him as a hero. "Many are now asking why the captain first had to be alerted about the shots through the passengers," says R. He is also unwilling to accept claims made by the cruise company that the passengers were never in danger. The shots were "fired at windows located just 50 meters from a group of many hundreds of passengers" attending a classical music concert, he says.
During the meeting with passengers, the captain reportedly refused to answer any critical questions. But passengers want to know why it took so long for the crew to react. And why no guards were stationed on deck at night as the ship sailed close to a region that has seen pirate attacks? And why the ship's radar hadn't triggered an early warning as the pirate boat approached?
"We Weren't in the Risk Zone"
The statements of MSC Cruises chief Vago illustrate how poorly prepared cruise ships have been up to now in dealing with the threat of pirate attacks. "Up until now, we have given more consideration to fish specialities or fine wines than attacks on the high seas," the Italian cruise executive says. The company says it has had security personnel on its ships for the past 25 years, but "because of legal provisions," they are required to keep their weapons in a safe. The captain is only permitted to distribute the guns after an alarm has been given.
In the case of the MSC Melody, the delay between the alarm and active defense was too short for pirates to be able to board the ship. Nevertheless, the photos of shattered windows in several cabins show that frustrated pirates firing around like madmen could easily have caused injuries or deaths. That's why Pinto praised his guests. He said all had immediately obeyed his order to go under deck. Many left behind their mobile phones, purses and even their shoes as they dashed to safety, he said.
MSC Cruises chief Vago has denied allegations that the cruise line jeopardized the safety of its passengers. Just before the cruise started, the company had even changed the ship's route to steer it even further away from the dangerous Somali coastal waters than originally planned. "We weren't in the risk zone," Vago emphasizes. But the scope of that zone has grown with each successive pirate attack. The pirates are operating in an ever greater area -- a trend that has grown further with the MSC Melody incident.
The details also tell a lot about the pirates -- the extent of their audacity and their high level of organization.
Shortly after the ship's passengers had helped fend off the attackers and the captain had alerted international warships, the satellite phone on the bridge rang. "You have been attacked, you need help," a man said in broken English. "Give us your coordinates and we will come to you." Captain Pinto thought the call was strange. The man on the other end of the line didn't want to give the name of his ship, so the captain refused to state the MSC Melody's position. He may have saved the passengers and crew from another pirate attack.
"The Pirates Tried to Attack us Again"
"The ship had been completely blacked out and made invisible to the pirates," MSC chief Vago says. "But we've become certain in the meantime that the pirates were trying to get the position data so they could attack us again." The captain has said he believes he heard street sounds in the background in the telephone conversation. And Vago says he believes that accomplices back on the mainland were trying to provide the pirates at sea with assistance.
The MSC chief is shocked by the pirate bands. He says journalists have told him that a Somalian who claimed to be the head of the pirates bragged about the attack by phone on Saturday. The caller allegedly said that cruise ships were a new target for pirates. He said that, this time, they had failed due to technical reasons. "The pirates appear to feel downright incited by the war ships and the efforts being made against them," Vago says. It is just a matter of time before the next attack happens, he says.
Vago has already taken his first steps in response to the attack. "We are no longer going to travel through the dangerous areas of the Indian Ocean near the Somalian coast," the cruise ship company's chief says. A trip through the region planned for another of the company's ships, the MSC Symphonia, for this autumn has been cancelled. "We won't travel this route and will instead take a course along West Africa," he says.
The cruise line, apparently, doesn't want to have to rely on luck again as it did on Saturday.
Some good news came late Monday night, too, via the Spanish military. The frigate Numancia has detained nine suspected pirates who may have been involved in the attack on the MSC Melody. The men were found near the location where the attack took place. After being detained, the men were turned over to the authorities in the Seychelles because the attack took place in that country's waters.
Still, we may never know if the men were really involved in the incident.
* Name has been changed and shortened by the editors because the family of Rolf R. did not want to be identified.