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Rescue on the High Seas

A year after his escape, Capt. Phillips describes being held captive

  Capt. Phillips describes his chance for freedom
April 1, 2010: One year ago, cargo ship Maersk Alabama was taken hostage by Somali pirates. Captain Richard Phillips talks to NBC's Matt Lauer about his escape.
  Freed captive: Pirates were 'winning in their eyes'
April 1, 2010: Capt. Richard Phillips talks to NBC's Matt Lauer a year after his release from the Maersk Alabama, which was taken captive by Somali pirates for four days.

Matt Lauer
'Today' anchor

MATT LAUER: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to DATELINE. I’m Matt Lauer.

It was Easter Sunday one year ago that an American cargo ship captain, Richard Phillips, held hostage by Somali pirates, was freed in a dramatic rescue by Navy sharp shooters. Now, at the time, Phillips was portrayed as a hero, willing to trade his life to save the lives of his crew members. The reality behind the news reports wasn’t quite so simple, and tonight Captain Phillips tells the harrowing true story of those four grueling days on a tiny lifeboat, a tale of terror, despair and, ultimately, quiet courage.

(Voiceover) It was high drama on the high seas. An American ship captain held hostage, desperate pirates have his life in their hands. A situation that could only end badly, until the Navy SEALs arrive. Tonight, in a DATELINE exclusive...

Story continues below ↓
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(Speedboat in ocean; pirates with guns; speedboat in ocean; Maersk ship; ship; lifeboat; ship; photo of Richard Phillips; photos of pirates on ship; Maersk Alabama; graphic of ship; gun; lifeboat; helicopter above ocean; lifeboat in sights of gun; lifeboat)

Captain RICHARD PHILLIPS: I was afraid for the entire time.

LAUER: (Voiceover) ...rarely seen Navy footage of the standoff.

(Helicopter above lifeboat)

Unidentified Man #1: (Navy videotape) Shots fired! Shots fired!

Unidentified Man #2: (Navy videotape) Hey, shots fired! Let them know!

LAUER: (Voiceover) The hour-by-hour details of the captain’s battle of wits with Somali pirates.

(Lifeboat; photo of pirate)

Capt. PHILLIPS: I told them, ‘You know, you’re never going to make it out of here. They’re never going to pay a ransom. We’re all going to die on this boat.’

LAUER: (Voiceover) And you’ll hear from the president himself about decisions that brought Rich Phillips home alive.

(Lifeboat in gun sight; Barack Obama speaking with Matt Lauer; Richard walking)

President BARACK OBAMA: Immediately we went to work trying to coordinate all US power to figure out how we can free him.

LAUER: Good to be back on a ship?

Capt. PHILLIPS: Oh, yeah.

LAUER: Yeah?

(Voiceover) To many, Captain Richard Phillips is a national hero. To some he’s a captain who recklessly sailed into harm’s way. With the release of his gripping new account, “A Captain’s Duty,” I sat down with him at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York.

(Richard and Lauer walking on ship; photo of Maersk Alabama; newspaper article; “A Captain’s Duty”; Lauer and Richard)

LAUER: Someone described your style in terms of being a captain is that you’re a tough son of a bitch?

Capt. PHILLIPS: I’m tough. I don’t think I’m a son of a bitch. I’m tough.

LAUER: (Voiceover) Tough but, when he can be, a homebody. He and his wife,

Andrea, live about as far from the dangers of piracy as you can get, in the countryside of northern Vermont.

(Richard and Andrea Phillips walking dog; porch and snow covered yard)

Capt. PHILLIPS: I’ve always wanted to live near the mountains. I’m a snowboarder, skier.

LAUER: You like the snow, don’t you?

Capt. PHILLIPS: I love the snow. Yeah.

LAUER: (Voiceover) Rich and Andrea met in Boston in the early 1980s, dated five years and married in 1988. They have a daughter, Mariah, and a son, Dan, who used to complain to his father about his long absences.

(Ocean; photo of Richard; photos of Richard and Andrea and family)

Capt. PHILLIPS: He said to me, ‘Oh, I don’t have a dad. He’s always at sea. He’s never home.’

LAUER: (Voiceover) As a merchant marine captain, he’d be home three months, then gone three.

(Richard and Andrea on couch)

LAUER: When you’re away, over the years, you found a way, you and Andrea, to kind of find ways to connect. The moon was something that kind of you saw as a way to keep yourselves together.

Capt. PHILLIPS: I’d say, ‘Well, I’m under the same moon you guys are.’ And so before they’d go to bed, they’d look at the moon and say goodnight to their dad.

LAUER: (Voiceover) A half moon hung in the sky when Rich Phillips’ voyage into history began, on April 1st, 2009. He was commanding the Maersk Alabama, a 508-foot long container ship loaded with food supplies. The ship sailed from Oman to Djibouti, then headed for Kenya. On that route, Captain Phillips brought his unarmed ship and its 20-member crew into the waters off the coast of Somalia. The dangers there are well-known. Gangs of Somali pirates in large mother ships launch small attack boats hundreds of miles from land.

Armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, the pirates board ships, take crew members and ships hostage, and at times kill their captains. And the pirates get away with millions of dollars in ransom.

(Moon; photo of Maersk Line ship; graphic of ship; map; speedboat in water; man with gun; speedboat in water; photos of men with guns; armed men on boat; photo of ship; ship in ocean; speedboats; photos of pirates on boat; weapons; speedboat; ship; photos of pirates; man holding gun; people landing boat)

LAUER: Prior to this trip, you had heard the news reports and you had read the headlines that there was some real pirate activity along the route you were going to be traveling.

Capt. PHILLIPS: I’d been in that area of the world really since early 2005.

I was always highly concerned with it. As I told my crew, it was never a matter of if, it’s—it was a matter of when.

LAUER: (Voiceover) In fact, in the days leading up to the journey, maritime security consultants had sent the Maersk Alabama numerous e-mails warning of continuing pirating activity, and two days into the trip Captain Phillips ordered am unannounced security drill.

(Ship in ocean; graphic of ship)

LAUER: I have read that you, as the captain, watched that drill and things didn’t go well at all. And freaked is too strong a word, but I heard you were not at all happy.

Capt. PHILLIPS: Well, I’ve never been happy in any drill. We always can improve.

LAUER: (Voiceover) After the drill, he says, he was confident the crew knew what to do: lock down all facilities, use the fire hoses and grab flares to aim at the pirates, and go to a safe room. The first six days of the Maersk Alabama’s journey were uneventful, but then, on April 7th, danger appeared on the horizon. Pirate boats were spotted in the distance. Chief Mate Shane Murphy was Captain Phillips’ second in command.

(Crew on ship; Maersk Line ship; on board ship; flare; hallway; ship in water; ocean; graphic of ship; ocean; Shane Murphy on bridge; speedboat in ocean)

Chief Mate SHANE MURPHY: I was standing by a hatch with a kitchen knife in my hand, watching the boat, you know, coming in within a mile.

LAUER: (Voiceover) On the bridge, Captain Phillips scrambled and ordered the speed increased. It was his first encounter with pirates in his 19 years commanding a ship, but he had a few novel ideas.

(Bridge of ship)

LAUER: Now they’re getting closer and closer. You started to play, for lack of a better term, games on the radio.

Capt. PHILLIPS: I started to simulate a conversation between me and a coalition warship, one of the countries that have navy ships there to fight piracy.

LAUER: Assuming that the pirates would be monitoring any radio transmissions coming from your ship and they would hear, ‘Wait a second, he’s talking to the military.’

Capt. PHILLIPS: Yeah.

LAUER: ‘This is not a good situation for us.’

Capt. PHILLIPS: Right.

LAUER: (Voiceover) Then after an hour and 45 minutes of cat and mouse maneuvers, the last of the small pirate boats turned away.

(Bow of ship in water; ship in ocean)

LAUER: When this thing finally ends, how did you feel about your lot in life at that moment?

Capt. PHILLIPS: Well, I think we all felt successful that our procedures did work. There was a sense we seemed to be on the right page, and there was a sense that we were successful.

LAUER: (Voiceover) But within hours all that would change. Coming up, the pirates return, and this time they mean business.

(Graphic of ship; people landing boat; ship at night)

LAUER: You’re in a huge cargo ship, and you’re trying to outrun a speed boat.

(Voiceover) And, within minutes, the unarmed ship is under attack.

(Speedboat; on board ship; alarm; speedboat in water)

Capt. PHILLIPS: He’s shooting up at me with the AK-47.

LAUER: (Voiceover) When Rescue on the High Seas continues.

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