An American who was kidnapped by crack-smoking Nigerian pirates and held hostage for almost three weeks said Friday that he is still haunted by the ordeal five months later and fears for the security of other captains.
"It's been hell," Capt. Wren Thomas, an ex-Marine from Sidney, Ill., told NBC News. "I have major PTSD.
"There's things out there that happened to me that I don't even want people to know about," he said. "I was a certain man when I went to Nigeria and when I came back, I'm a totally different person."
Thomas and his engineer, who is also American, were held captive after the oil supply ship C-Retriever was attacked off Nigeria's coast, a notorious piracy hotspot, on Oct. 23. Fears grew that the pair had been killed after their vessel was found abandoned in a Nigerian port.
In interviews with shipping news site gCaptain and with NBC, Thomas spoke for the first time about the harrowing experience — from a premonition he had that his ship would be attacked, to his feeling that his company didn't do enough to help him or his wife, Rhonda.
"When I got home, my sister bought me the Captain Phillips book," he said of the famous seafarer whose 2009 abduction by pirates was turned into a movie starring Tom Hanks.
"I see a photo of Captain Phillips shaking hands with President Obama," he said. "But the president of my own company couldn't even call my wife, my kids, or my mom or anybody and say, 'We are doing everything we can.'"
The Louisiana-based company, Edison Chouest Offshore, did not respond to a request for comment on Thomas' complaints.
Thomas had been working for the firm for seven years when he was taken. He said a series of threats and concerns about safety — the ship had no guards or security cameras and logistics were discussed on open channels — had already made him unsettled.
The night it happened, he told his crew, "Watch out for pirates," he said.
"I went to bed and laid there waiting for the knock on the door," he said.
It came in the middle of the night, his chief officer reporting that pirates were on board the 222-foot vessel. They rushed to the bulk tank room and barricaded themselves behind a steel door with eight other crew members.
The pirates found a metal grinder and started attacking the door. In a desperate attempt to keep them at bay, Thomas grabbed a water hose and began spraying the tool, electrocuting one of the intruders, he said.
But they persisted and used a sledgehammer to bash a hole in the door big enough to stick an AK-47 rifle barrel through.
"They started firing rounds in there," Thomas said.
"I'm like, 'Look, we either give up now or we get killed or we get our crew members killed,'" he recalled. "I started screaming that we were coming out and not to shoot anymore."
The captain opened the door and outside stood two pirates who were none too happy about his water-spraying efforts.
"They wanted to kill me for electrocuting them," Thomas said. "I kicked into survival mode really quick."
He told them he was only trying to put out a fire and even talked them into letting him retrieve some medicine before he and his engineer were loaded into a speed boat and taken to "the bush."
"It was basically like your Gilligan's Island hut," he said of the pirates' hideout. Inside were crude beds fashioned from bamboo with moldy foam rubber mats.
A fire was blazing at all times, making the air stifling and smoky. They bathed and cooked with filthy swamp water. They were given a package of ramen noodles to eat every other day — but only if the captors were in a good mood.
"They were smoking pot and crack and drinking a lot," Thomas said. "It made them real erratic. You know drugs, alcohol, weapons and anger don't mix."
The 14 pirates at the camp constantly fought and threatened each other with their guns. "They would chamber rounds on each other and beat each other. The tension was always high."
"I kicked into survival mode real quick."
One attempt to befriend a kidnapper ended in failure when the Nigerian lost his temper.
“He asked if I wanted some tea,” Thomas told Rob Almeida of gCaptain.
“I told him 'yes' then when he got around to it about an hour later I told him I didn’t want it, since the caffeine probably wouldn’t be good for me. He went completely nuts and told me not to ever make him angry again or I would regret it. He had Satan in his eyes. I apologized to him and accepted some tea.”
Thomas said he initially thought the negotiations would result in a quick release. The pirates demanded $2 million, which he thought was low. He claims Edison Chouest countered with a $30,000 offer.
After seven days, the men were moved to a new location in the swamp about a half-mile from a beach. Stop-and-start negotiations continued until finally it seemed a deal had been struck.
The Americans were taken to town in a covered boat to meet three Nigerian bagmen who were to deliver the ransom. Thomas said the trio apparently skimmed several thousand dollars and were then beaten until the full amount was surrendered.
At gunpoint, he and the engineer were walked up a hill and told lie facedown in the dirt next to the three beaten men.
"Don't get up until you hear us gone or we'll shoot and kill you," they were told, according to Phillips.
Eventually, the group got in a car and drove to a hotel, then went to the company offices in Port Harcourt the next day. The two ex-captives flew to Lagos, where they were debriefed by the FBI, and then returned to Louisiana, where they were grilled by their bosses, he said.
Thomas said the 18-day ordeal left him suicidal when he was back in the U.S.
“I wanted to end my life. Every time I was alone in my house, I was trying to figure out which gun I was going to use," he told gCaptain.
"When I was driving, I was trying to figure out how I could do it in my truck. I would get so engrossed in wanting to kill myself that I would get dizzy. I hated what I put everyone through.”
Thomas said there were details he could not discuss: the full extent of the abuse he suffered while being held, the amount of the ransom that was eventually paid, and his current status with Edison Chouest.
He has retained Texas lawyer Brian Beckcom, who represented the crew of Phillips' ship, the Maersk Alabama, as "an advisor," he said.
"Something more has to be done to protect the men and women who work off the coast of West Africa and then to provide for them when they return from an event like this," he said.
Asking whether he anticipates some type of legal action, Beckcom said, "Nothing is being ruled out right now."
First published April 4 2014, 8:45 AM