WASHINGTON — Ordered to shoot to kill, snipers on the swaying stern of the U.S. destroyer had one improbable chance to get it right.
Anything less than direct hits killing three pirates with three bullets would have placed the American hostage, merchant Capt. Richard Phillips, in mortal danger, if not sealed his fate.
Navy SEALs are trained for an improbable variety of tasks — to dive deep, fight in the desert, parachute into the ocean, conduct urban warfare, operate in bitter cold, crawl through the jungle. They're trained to wait, too.
This night, they had to find their moment, shrug off the pressure and shoot straight.
"It was a day at the office for the SEALs, much like it's a day at the office for a heart surgeon or a concert violinist," said Dick Couch, a Vietnam-era SEAL and author of "The Warrior Elite," an inside look at the commandos' rigorous training program.
The scene was set as darkness fell Sunday evening off the African coast: The last three pirates, holding Phillips in an enclosed powerless lifeboat, appeared to be running out of patience with their predicament.
Bobbing for days after their brazen attempt to seize Phillips' ship failed, their mood was "going up and down" like the ocean swells, according to U.S. accounts of the negotiations.
Life was miserable on lifeboat
They were described as increasingly agitated, and it's easy to see why. Life aboard the lifeboat was plainly miserable. It's a sweltering, elongated fiberglass bubble with no setup for sleeping or going to the bathroom on board.
A fourth pirate had surrendered, boarding the destroyer for treatment of a wound to his hand.
The remaining three pirates and the U.S. Navy, like barroom brawlers agreeing to take it outside, had decided to move their standoff to calmer waters.
As night fell, the Bainbridge had the lifeboat under tow when two developments told the Navy the pirates might be getting desperate, U.S. officials said in their reconstruction of events.
First, a tracer bullet arced from the lifeboat toward the Bainbridge.
Then, through one of the few openings on the lifeboat, Phillips could be seen with a gun pointed at him, almost touching him.
The risk seemed obvious, but what about opportunity? Clean lines of fire that would leave the pirates' captive safe were hard to come by when taking aim at the bubble.
Three Navy SEALs aboard the Bainbridge waited quietly in the darkness.
The Navy, a force of more than 330,000, has just 2,000 SEALs, highly trained as stealthy rescuers — and killers. They are called SEALs because they can fight by SEa, Air and Land.
SEAL snipers are counted on for precision fire from concealed positions. They practice stalking, helicopter insertion, intelligence gathering and more.
Their training manual instructs them on camouflage, navigation, evading dogs and a skill of special value when taking aim from a large ship at a small boat riding the waves: "Correcting for Environmental Factors."
Officials declined to discuss the equipment used by the SEALs on the destroyer.
Targets were 25 yards away
But U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., has purchased several thousand small, battery-operated night sights that magnify available moonlight and starlight to illuminate targets. The sights weigh a few pounds and clip onto rifles.
"From 1,000 meters, you can tell if someone is raising their left or right hand," said C. Reed Knight Jr., president of Knight's Armament in Titusville, Fla., one of the few companies that sells sights to the command.
The SEALs in the Gulf of Aden standoff had parachuted into the ocean to join the destroyer.
Now, Sunday night, they were 25 or so yards from their targets, waiting.
Their mission, fraught with risk for the hostage, was one that SEAL snipers are trained to do, Couch said.
The opportunity arrived.
The three hostage-takers were observed with their heads and shoulders all exposed at once, said Vice Adm. William Gortney, commander of U.S. naval forces in the region.
Three shots rang out from the SEALs.
Three pirates were dead or rapidly dying.
Phillips was found safe, his hands bound. Back home in Burlington, Vt., Andrea Phillips sent the message to her husband that "your family is saving a chocolate Easter egg for you, unless your son eats it first."
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