Nineteen American sailors reached safe harbor on Saturday days after escaping a pirate hijacking off the Horn of Africa, exhilarated by freedom but mourning the absence of the captain they hailed for sacrificing his freedom to save them.
With a throng of reporters shouting questions from shore, the crew of the Maersk Alabama described an ordeal that began with Somali pirates hauling themselves onto the deck from a small boat bobbing on the surface of the Indian Ocean far below.
"They came from the stern of the ship and came on with hooks and ropes and were firing in the air when they got on board," said ATM Reza, a father of one from Hartford, Conn., who said he was the first to see the pirates board Wednesday.
As the pirates shot in the air, Capt. Richard Phillips, 53, of Underhill, Vt., told his crew to lock themselves in a cabin and surrendered himself to safeguard his men, crew members said. Phillips was still held hostage in an enclosed lifeboat Saturday by four pirates being closely watched by U.S. warships in an increasingly tense standoff.
"He saved our lives!" second mate Ken Quinn, of Bradenton, Fla., declared from the ship as it docked in the resort and port city of Mombasa. "He's a hero."
Reza said that he had led one of the pirates to the engine room, where he stabbed him in the hand with an ice pick and tied him up. Other sailors corroborated that story.
The crew did not elaborate Saturday but have told family members by phone that they took one pirate hostage before giving him up in the unfulfilled hope their captain would be released. Instead, the Somalis fled with Phillips to the lifeboat.
Living through a ‘nightmare’
Some of the Alabama's crew cheered and cracked jokes as they arrived in Mombasa, others peered warily over the edge of their 17,000-ton cargo ship.
With Navy Seals standing guard, one sailor told off the mass of journalists, saying: "Don't disrespect these men like that. They've got a man out on a lifeboat dying so we can live."
Crewman William Rios described the whole experience as a "nightmare" and said the first thing he will do back home in New York is pray. "I'm going to church," he said, specifying St. John the Baptist Church in New York City.
Quinn told reporters the experience was "terrifying and exciting at the same time." Asked what he thought of the pirates who seized the boat, Quinn said: "They're just hungry."
Maersk President John Reinhart said from Norfolk, Va., that the ship was still a crime scene and the crewmen could not leave until the FBI investigates the attack.
He said crew members have been provided phones so they can stay in touch with family members.
"When I spoke to the crew, they won't consider it done when they board a plane and come home," Reinhart said. "They won't consider it done until the captain is back, nor will we."
Other bandits, among the hundreds who have made the Gulf of Aden the world's most dangerous waterway, seized an Italian tugboat off Somalia's north coast Saturday as it was pulling barges, said Shona Lowe, a spokeswoman at NATO's Northwood maritime command center outside London.
The Foreign Ministry in Rome confirmed 10 of the 16 crew members are Italian. The others are five Romanians and a Croatian, according to Micoperi, the Italian company that owns the ship.
A piracy expert said the two hijackings did not appear related.
"This is just the Somali pirate machine in full flow," said Graeme Gibbon-Brooks, founder of Dryad Maritime Intelligence Ltd.
Bid for freedom
Phillips jumped out of the lifeboat Friday and tried to swim for his freedom but was recaptured when a pirate fired an automatic weapon at or near him, according to U.S. Defense Department officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk about the sensitive, unfolding operations.
"We believe that Capt. Phillips will survive this situation," said Capt. Joseph Murphy, father of second-in-command Shane Murphy. "We know he will survive because he will never give up."
A U.S. military official said that early Saturday the pirates in the lifeboat believed to be armed with pistols and AK-47s fired a few shots at a small Navy vessel that had approached, possibly to conduct reconnaissance. No one was hurt and the Navy vessel turned away, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The U.S. sailors did not return fire, he said. The U.S. had not approached in a rescue attempt, he said.
The captain of the warship watching the lifeboat has been getting direction from FBI hostage negotiators and talks have taken place with the pirates, U.S. officials said.
In Underhill, two young girls set up a lemonade stand with a sign saying "Come home safe Capt. Phillips."
Rev. Charles Danielson of the St. Thomas Church, said the congregation would continue to pray for Phillips and his family, who are members, and he would encourage "people to find hope in the triumph of good over evil."
‘Bring Richard home safely’
Reinhart said he spoke with Phillips' wife, Andrea, who is surrounded by family and two company employees who were sent to support her.
"She's a brave woman," Reinhart said. "And she has one favor to ask: 'Do what you have to do to bring Richard home safely.' That means don't make a mistake, folks. We have to be perfect in our execution."
The USS Bainbridge was joined Friday by the USS Halyburton, which has helicopters, and the huge, amphibious USS Boxer was expected soon after, the defense officials said. The Boxer, the flagship of a multination anti-piracy task force, resembles a small aircraft carrier. It has a crew of more than 1,000, a mobile hospital, missile launchers and about two dozen helicopters and attack planes.
On Friday, the French navy freed a sailboat seized off Somalia last week by other pirates, but one of the hostages was killed.
The vice president of the Philippines, the nation with the largest number of sailors held captive by Somali pirates, appealed for the safety of hostages to be ensured in the standoff.
"We hope that before launching any tactical action against the pirates, the welfare of every hostage is guaranteed and ensured," said Vice President Noli de Castro.
Meanwhile, France's defense minister promised an autopsy and investigation into the death of a hostage killed during a commando operation, which freed four other captives and was prompted by threats the passengers would be executed. Two pirates also were killed. Three pirates were captured and are to be brought to France for criminal proceedings.
Somali pirates are holding about a dozen ships with more than 200 crew members, according to the Malaysia-based International Maritime Bureau, a piracy watchdog group. The bureau lists 66 attacks since January, not including the Alabama or the Italian ship seized Saturday.