NAIROBI, Kenya — In a riveting high-seas drama, an unarmed American crew wrested control of their U.S.-flagged cargo ship from Somali pirates Wednesday and sent them fleeing to a lifeboat with the captain as hostage.
U.S. warship and at least six others were speeding toward the ship — the first with an American crew to be taken by pirates off the Horn of Africa — as crew members negotiated with the pirates for the return of the captain.
By late Wednesday, the destroyer USS Bainbridge had arrived. The Bainbridge was among several U.S. ships, including the cruiser USS Gettysburg, that had been patrolling in the region but were several hours away when the Maersk Alabama was seized.
The Bainbridge is a guided-missile destroyer carrying Tomahawk cruise missiles, torpedoes and two MH-60 Knighthawk helicopters armed with Hellfire missiles.
It was not clear what the military crews would do when they got to the scene. Options could include negotiation, backed by force.
Family members said Capt. Richard Phillips surrendered himself to the pirates to secure the safety of the crew.
"What I understand is that he offered himself as the hostage," said Gina Coggio, 29, half sister of Phillips' wife. "That is what he would do. It's just who he is and his response as a captain."
Details of the day's events emerged sporadically as members of the crew were reached by satellite phone, providing a glimpse of the maneuvering.
A sailor who spoke to The Associated Press said the entire 20-member crew had been taken hostage but managed to seize one pirate and then successfully negotiated their own release. The man did not identify himself during the brief conversation.
The crisis played out hundreds of miles off the coast of Somalia — one of the most lawless nations on earth. President Barack Obama was following the situation closely, foreign policy adviser Denis McDonough said.
Sixth vessel seized in a week
The Maersk Alabama was the sixth vessel seized by Somalis pirates in a week . Pirates have staged 66 attacks since January, and they are still holding 14 ships and 260 crew members as hostages, according to the International Maritime Bureau, a watchdog group based in Kuala Lumpur.
Somalia's 1,900-mile (3,057-kilometer) long coastline borders one of the world's busiest shipping lanes and offers a perfect haven to the heavily armed pirate gangs. They often dress in military fatigues and use GPS systems and satellite phones to coordinate attacks from small, fast speedboats resupplied by a larger "mother ship".
The pirates usually use rocket propelled grenades, anti-tank rocket launchers and automatic weapons to capture large, slow-moving vessels like the U.S.-flagged 17,000-ton Maersk Alabama, which was carrying food aid from USAID and other agencies to help malnourished people in Uganda and Somalia.
According to reports from the crew, the pirates sank their boat when they boarded the ship. The captain talked them into getting off the vessel using one of the ship's lifeboats.
Second Mate Ken Quinn told CNN in a live interview Wednesday that the crew also had held a hostage.
"We had a pirate, we took him for 12 hours," Quinn said. "We returned him, but they didn't return the captain."
Maersk Line Limited CEO John F. Reinhart said his company received a call that indicated the crewmen were safe. But the call got cut off, and the company could not ask any more questions.
It remained unclear how the unarmed sailors could have overpowered pirates armed with automatic weapons.
Pirates followed the ship Monday
Capt. Shane Murphy, second in command on the ship, told his wife, Serena, that pirates had followed the ship Monday and pursued it again for three or four hours before boarding it Wednesday morning, family members said.
The ship was taken about 7:30 a.m. local time some 380 miles (610 kilometers) east of the Somali capital of Mogadishu. Analysts say many of the pirates have shifted their operations down the Somali coastline from the Gulf of Aden to escape naval warship patrols.
Reinhart said the company's vessels had received a heightened alert about piracy activity. He did not have particulars about how the ship was taken, but said the crew's orders were to hide in safe rooms until aid came. They did not have weapons, he said, and typically, their defense would be to fight the pirates off with fire hoses as they climbed up the stern.
Andrea Phillips, the captain's wife, said her husband had sailed in those waters "for quite some time" and a hijacking was perhaps "inevitable."
Coggio, speaking to reporters from the porch of the Phillips' farmhouse in Underhill, Vt., said the family had been told negotiations were being conducted to get the captain back to the boat.
Capt. Joseph Murphy, a professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, said his son was a 2001 Massachusetts Maritime Academy graduate who recently talked to a class about the dangers of piracy.
The younger Murphy wrote on his Facebook profile that he worked in waters between Oman and Kenya.
"These waters are infested with pirates that highjack (sic) ships daily," Murphy wrote on the page, which features a photograph of him. "I feel like it's only a matter of time before my number gets called."
Training in anti-piracy tactics
Joseph Murphy said his son was trained in anti-piracy tactics at the academy and received training with firearms and small-arms tactics.
Piracy expert Roger Middleton from London-based think-tank Chatham House said it was unclear whether the pirates knew they were hijacking a ship with American crew, but the incident would strengthen the hand of those in American military circles who wanted to take a more robust approach to anti-piracy operations.
Multimillion dollar ransoms are fueling a piracy explosion. There were 111 attacks in 2008, and more than half that number have been occurred in the first four months of this year. Last year, pirates made off with up to $80 million in ransom money, said Middleton. Those hauls included payment for a Saudi oil tanker and a Ukrainian ship loaded with military tanks, both of which were later released.
NATO already has five warships in the Gulf of Aden and is planning to deploy a permanent flotilla to the region this summer.
The hijackings — and the resulting jumps in insurance fees and shipping costs — have prompted many countries to send their navies to the region. The NATO warships patrol alongside three frigates from the European Union, and up to ten American ships. India, China, Japan, Russia and other nations also cooperate in the international patrols.
Nearest U.S. shipwas hundreds of miles away
U.S. Navy spokesman Lt. Nathan Christensen said the closest U.S. ship at the time of the hijacking was 345 miles (555 kilometers) away.
"The area the ship was taken in is not where the focus of our ships has been," Christensen said. "The area we're patrolling is more than a million miles in size. Our ships cannot be everywhere at every time."
It's a lesson the Somali pirates have taken to heart, venturing hundreds of miles offshore to capture a British ship, a Taiwanese trawler, a Yemeni tug, a German vessel and a French yacht in the past week.
In an interview with the AP, a man identified by villagers as a pirate, said his gang was not merely a band ruffians, but a well-organized, business-minded group that also had philanthropic concerns.
"We have leaders, investors, young people who go to the sea for hunting ships and also negotiators in many areas," said the man, who identified himself only as Madobe. He said he was in his 20s.
Douglas J. Mavrinac, the head of maritime research at investment firm Jefferies & Co., said using U.S.-flagged ships with American crews was rare because of the high costs. But they are used to carry U.S. government aid.
There are fewer than 200 U.S.-flagged vessels in international waters, said Larry Howard, chair of the Global Business and Transportation Department at SUNY Maritime College in New York.
The Associated Press, Reuters and NBC News contributed to this report.