IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Rescue on the High Seas

It was just another day at work for Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama. That all changed when armed Somali pirates took the ship captive. He shares his terrifying ordeal with Dateline NBC.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

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...

(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.

LAUER: (Voiceover) The Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia. It was 3:30 AM on Wednesday, April 8th, and on the Maersk Alabama, Captain Rich Phillips woke to disturbing news.

(Ship at night; graphic of ship)

Capt. PHILLIPS: I got a call from my second mate. We could see a small boat behind through the binoculars. And then I heard it over the radio what they said, ‘Somali pirates. Somali pirates coming to get you. Coming to get you.’

LAUER: Let me stop you there because that seems like the last thing a Somali pirate would say on a radio. ‘Here I am, a Somali pirate, and I’m coming to get you.’

Capt. PHILLIPS: Yeah.

LAUER: You’d think they’d want the element of surprise.

Capt. PHILLIPS: You would think, and then we did...

LAUER: Did you change course at all?

Capt. PHILLIPS: We changed course and then we sped up to, oh, 120 revs and kept that speed, I believe, till I woke up at 6, 6:15 in the morning.

LAUER: When you say you woke up then at 6:15 in the morning, what might surprise some people is here now you’ve have had perhaps your second encounter with Somali pirates and you’re able to go back to bed. I think I would have been standing on the bridge there looking in every direction, unable to sleep. How did you manage to go back to sleep?

Capt. PHILLIPS: Well, I do have a crew, and I stayed up on the bridge for—I’m going to say maybe 45 minutes to 50 minutes. There was nothing else out there, nothing on the radar. And...

LAUER: So you’re thinking second situation perhaps averted.

Capt. PHILLIPS: Maybe, or I’m thinking it’s a fishing boat just wanting you to stay away from their gear.

LAUER: (Voiceover) Fishing boat or not, it was a nagging reminder of the captain and crew’s worst fear, being taken hostage by pirates and hauled off to Somalia. Chief Mate Shane Murphy:

(Boat in water; ship in water; boat being landed; armed men; Murphy looking at water)

Chief Mate MURPHY: I was pretty much on a hair trigger all the time, waiting for something to happen.

LAUER: (Voiceover) And something did. It was around 6:45 AM, just after sunrise. Captain Phillips had returned to the bridge. The crew spotted a small boat behind them.

(Sunrise; Maersk Alabama; person steering boat; speedboat in water)

Capt. PHILLIPS: I would say he was going 20, 21 knots. He’s closing fairly fast, a fast...

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

Capt. PHILLIPS: Basically, yeah.

LAUER: (Voiceover) The captain ordered the general alarm.

(On board ship; alarm)

Capt. PHILLIPS: I knew it was a piracy situation. I was nervous, but I knew the procedures.

LAUER: Here you got this speedboat closing on you. You’ve got no guns on board.

Capt. PHILLIPS: No. No weapons.

LAUER: You’ve got flares, you’ve got fire hoses, but they’re getting closer and closer. And from what I understand, all of a sudden here comes automatic weapon fire.

Capt. PHILLIPS: I’m going to say they were half mile and they start firing.

LAUER: (Voiceover) In those chaotic moments just after 7 AM, most of the 20-member crew took cover according to plan. Many eventually ended up in a safe room, hidden in the bowels of the ship. Captain Phillips, though, stayed on the bridge with two other crew members, who helped to stand watch. This is an actual photo taken as the pirates approached, and then the pirate skiff slid up alongside the ship.

(On board ship; bridge of ship; photo of speedboat; graphic of ship and


LAUER: Are they firing at the ship or do you think they’re firing warning shots? Did you hear anything hit the ship?

Capt. PHILLIPS: Oh, yeah. You heard the whap of ricochets.

LAUER: (Voiceover) The pirates had a white ladder they tilted up to climb the 20 feet from their boat to an opening on the ship.

(Maersk Alabama; graphic of ladder and ship)

LAUER: How long did it take them to get up that ladder?

Capt. PHILLIPS: They were very quick. He’s shooting up at me with the AK-47. I’m going to say six seconds, seven seconds for him to to get up and onto the deck.

LAUER: (Voiceover) It was 7:15 AM, Wednesday. The Maersk Alabama had been boarded by pirates. These are the photos taken later by a crew member. The chief mate, by then locked in his office down below, couldn’t believe it.

(Maersk Alabama; photo of pirates; on board ship)

Chief Mate MURPHY: I was gearing myself up like for a fistfight-type of situation. I was, you know, screaming and punching the walls and things.

LAUER: (Voiceover) The captain didn’t want to give up without a fight either.

Up on the bridge, he thought he had time before he had to back off and hide himself.

(Graphic of ship)

Capt. PHILLIPS: Our next procedure is for us to back off the bridge and surrender the bridge, but I didn’t see a reason at that time.

LAUER: Let me give you a reason to surrender the bridge: They’ve got AK-47s, and you’ve got nothing but a flare gun. I’m mean, a lot of people would have said that’s a good time to surrender.

Capt. PHILLIPS: Yeah, but you can’t surrender. So I’m still trying to keep some semblance of control. Unbeknownst to me, one of them did get by and out of the corner of my eye I looked and there was the pirate with an AK-47.

LAUER: Any idea why he didn’t just shoot you?

Capt. PHILLIPS: He basically shot at me twice and then came in and just said, ‘Relax, relax, no problem, no problem. Just business, just business. No al-Qaeda. No al-Qaeda. Just business. Relax. Relax, captain.’

LAUER: (Voiceover) The pirates wanted to take the ship and its crew to Somalia and hold it there until the ship’s owners paid millions in ransom. But the pirates didn’t know those plans were already foiled. The ship was going nowhere. A secret plan had gone into effect. The captain knew that the chief engineer, locked away in the engine room below, had taken control of the ship’s power and steering. Only he could move the ship.

(Maersk Alabama; ocean; on board ship; power steering sign; engine room)

Chief Mate MURPHY: He disabled the system in a way that only he knew how to bring it back. So he made himself a very important key in the whole situation.

LAUER: (Voiceover) It was a small victory. By maintaining control of everything but the bridge, the ship’s crew had thwarted the pirates’ plan to move the ship and 20 hostages to the Somali coast, at least for the time being. But, for Captain Phillips, a life and death struggle was about to begin.

(Graphic of ship; Richard; Maersk Alabama)

LAUER: (Voiceover) Coming up, tension builds to the breaking point.

(Photo of man)

Capt. PHILLIPS: They threatened to shoot my crew and myself if we didn’t bring the crew up in two minutes.

LAUER: (Voiceover) What can the captain do now to protect his crew? When DATELINE continues.

(Photo of pirate; photos of Richard, Colin Wright, Cliff Lacon, ATM Reza;

LAUER: (Voiceover) It was midmorning, Wednesday April 8th, blazing sun, stifling humidity. Paralyzing fear hung over the Indian Ocean.

(Glint of sun; ocean; ship in water; sun; ship in ocean)

Capt. PHILLIPS: I was afraid. I was afraid for the entire time.

LAUER: (Voiceover) On board the Maersk Alabama, four Somali pirates held Captain Richard Phillips and, by this time, three other crew members at gunpoint on the bridge. Fifteen crew members were in a safe room in the bowels of the ship. The chief engineer controlled the ship’s movements from the engine room and cut the power on board. Yet, the pirates were pleased at first. This ship was flying the stars and stripes.

(Graphic of ship; Maersk Alabama; United States flag)

LAUER: And when they did find out it was an American flagship, they felt they’d hit the jackpot.

Capt. PHILLIPS: They started high-fiving each other actually once they found out it was an American ship.

LAUER: (Voiceover) But the captain wasn’t going to let his American ship go without a struggle. He kept a handheld radio by his side and, when the pirates weren’t looking, used it to communicate with the crew members who were hiding, and he took a few steps to foil the pirates themselves, even issuing false orders.

(Graphic of ship; radio; bridge of ship)

LAUER: You’re messing with them now. You’re changing the radar so they can’t tell where their mothership is. You’re messing with the radio so they can’t contact their mothership. You’re not bringing your crew into the open.

Capt. PHILLIPS: See, I’m asking for the crew, sometimes I’m saying, ‘Send two guys, send three guys.’ They’re getting upset. ‘Crew has to come to the bridge immediately.’

LAUER: (Voiceover) But the crew knew to ignore his orders. He would have used a preset password if the commands were real, so the crew stayed hidden, and, as time passed, the danger and tension ratcheted up. The pirates set a deadline. Alongside the captain up on the bridge, crew members Colin Wright, Cliff Lacon and another named “ATM” Reza were also being held hostage. The pirates threatened to shoot them if the crew members who were in hiding didn’t start to show up.

(Radio; on board ship; graphic of ship; photo of pirate; photos of Richard, Wright, Lacon and Reza; photo of pirate; on board ship)

Capt. PHILLIPS: I was afraid for my life, the crew members. They threatened to shoot my crew and myself if we didn’t bring the crew up in two minutes.

And I was able to pass to my crew over the radio, ‘If you don’t hear from us in two minutes, you’ll get no quarter. You guys are on your own. There is no giving up.’

LAUER: (Voiceover) At this point, Chief Mate Shane Murphy was hiding, perched on a crane. He could hear the desperation in the pirates’ voices and feared the worse.

(Graphic of ship; photo of Murphy)

Chief Mate MURPHY: God, I’m going to hear the shot ring out and, you know, maybe Colin or ATM is going to be shot to death.

LAUER: (Voiceover) A secret onboard alert system had already sent a distress call to the US military. Navy planes were dispatched from a base in Djibouti for reconnaissance. Warships were rerouted and directed to the scene. And, at the White House, Barack Obama was informed of the life or death situation: one of the first foreign crises of his young presidency.

(Bridge of ship; airplane; photo of war ship; White House; Obama and Lauer speaking)

LAUER: Mr. President, when you heard that an American captain was being held by the pirates, what was the first thing that went through your mind?

Pres. OBAMA: The first thing I thought about was his family and tried to put myself in his family’s shoes, thinking about how frightening that would be.

LAUER: (Voiceover) For the captain’s wife, Andrea, it was frightening. But when she heard the news from a neighbor, her friends told her not to worry.

(Window of house; street in front of house; Andrea)

Ms. ANDREA PHILLIPS: You know, ‘Andrea, you know the MO. They just want money. It’s just, you know, they hijack a ship. They just want money. Nobody’s going to get hurt.’

LAUER: (Voiceover) She had no idea an AK-47 was pointed at her husband’s head. For Captain Phillips, the tension and the heat made it nearly unbearable. But the deadline to kill a crew member passed without shots fired, and the pirates were beside themselves trying to find the other crew members.

(Andrea at window; Richard; on board ship)

LAUER: (Voiceover) It’s like a ghost ship at this point.

(On board ship)

Capt. PHILLIPS: Yeah, that’s exactly right. So they started to get a little hinky. I mean, ‘Where’s the crew? Why doesn’t anything work on this ship?’

LAUER: (Voiceover) Frustrated, a pirate the captain called the leader left the gunmen and hostages on the bridge and took the captain to look for the crew members who were hiding.

(On board ship; photo of pirate; on board ship)

Capt. PHILLIPS: He was unarmed the whole time.

LAUER: You go with an unarmed pirate below decks. Any thought once you get below deck to just clock him?

Capt. PHILLIPS: It would have been no problem at all because I could have done just that. I...

LAUER: Why didn’t you?

Capt. PHILLIPS: I have two men and then three men up on the bridge, so it does nothing. They still have the ship, so it doesn’t solve my problem.

LAUER: (Voiceover) The power cut off, the captain escorted the leader through the darkened passageways, up ladders, into offices.

(Controls of ship; person walking on board ship; ladder; darkness)

Capt. PHILLIPS: I’m walking around, being as loud as I can, making loud noise with my feet. ‘Oh, you want to go down to D deck?’ ‘Oh, you want to go to the mess deck?’ So I was able to speak like that, was able to walk a little slow but heavy.

LAUER: Were there any close calls during that tour of the ship, trying to find those crew members?

Capt. PHILLIPS: Well, I wasn’t sure where everybody was.

LAUER: (Voiceover) Little did he know, he came within feet of his chief mate at least three times.

(On board ship)

Chief Mate MURPHY: I’d hear his loud voice, ‘OK, you know, we’ll open this door up. There’s nobody in here.’ And it would give me just enough chance to duck for cover.

LAUER: (Voiceover) Shane Murphy took a page from the captain’s playbook the day before. He radioed to a phantom Navy warship and the pirates heard it.

(On board ship; radio officer sign; radio; Murphy)

Chief Mate MURPHY: I was saying, you know, ‘Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is US flag Maersk Alabama, American crew. We’ve been taken hostage by Somali pirates.’

LAUER: You write in the book that when that happened, it looked like the lead pirate’s head was going to explode.

Capt. PHILLIPS: Yeah. Because he couldn’t understand it. ‘Who is that?

Where is he?’ ‘I don’t know. I’m here with you.’

LAUER: (Voiceover) The pirate wanted to search the ship again. This time it was the crew member named ATM who took him. Before he left, the captain whispered instructions.

(On board dark ship; photo of Reza; shadows on board ship)

Capt. PHILLIPS: ATM was coming toward me, I said, ‘Take him to the boys. He doesn’t have a weapon.’ Hoping that he would do that. And he was smart enough and did a very imaginative and brave thing. He took him down there and overpowered him.

LAUER: (Voiceover) And incredibly, with the chief engineer brandishing a knife in the darkness, the pirate leader was subdued, bound, and dragged into the safe room with the hiding crew members. This photo of the leader was taken by a crew member soon after the capture. The tables were turned. It seemed like a major victory for the crew of the Maersk Alabama. The remaining pirates were now furious.

(On board ship; photos of pirate; on board dark ship)

Chief Mate MURPHY: They started getting panicky. You could tell it in their voice, the way they were screaming for their friend.

LAUER: (Voiceover) The crew had a bargaining chip, and the stage was set for a hostage trade for Captain Phillips, a trade that would go horribly wrong.

Coming up, the captain volunteers for a hostage exchange but the pirates renege.

(Graphic of ship; photos of pirates; photo of Richard; graphic of ship; photo of pirate; photo of Richard; photo of pirate)

Ms. PHILLIPS: (Voiceover) Now he’s one guy with four pirates on a lifeboat.

(Andrea walking)

LAUER: (Voiceover) With guns pointed at his head, when Rescue on the High Seas continues.

LAUER: (Voiceover) The Maersk Alabama was off the coast of Somalia. By late afternoon April 8th, 2009, nearly 10 hours had gone by since the ship was boarded by Somali pirates. Captain Rich Phillips and, by that time, two crew members were being held at gunpoint. The other 17 crew members were locked in a safe room down below. But a crew member named ATM, along with the chief engineer, had turned the tables. They had seized the pirate leader and set the stage for a trade.

(Sun; graphic of ship; photo of Richard; graphic of ship; photo of Reza; photo of pirate)

LAUER: So now you’ve got the leader of the pirates under your control.

Capt. PHILLIPS: Under the crew’s control, not mine.

LAUER: Yeah, not you. But the other three pirates still have the bridge, basically, and they’re armed.

Capt. PHILLIPS: Yeah.

LAUER: (Voiceover) On the bridge, though, the three remaining pirates were obviously getting frantic.

(Maersk Alabama)

Chief Mate MURPHY: I’m assuming they also believed that the Navy was very close and was going to be there shortly.

LAUER: (Voiceover) After negotiations via radio between the remaining three pirates and the crew members holding their leader, there was a deal. The pirates would get the leader back if they got off the ship. They’d also get $30,000 that Captain Phillips kept in the ship’s safe.

(Graphic of ship; photo of pirates; photo of crew; photo of pirate; photo of Richard)

Capt. PHILLIPS: They are winning, in their eyes, because they were able to attack the ship, they were able to get off the ship with some money, and once they got off the ship, I told them, we’d exchange hostages, but not while they’re on the ship.

LAUER: (Voiceover) The pirate skiff had drifted off and capsized. Eventually the Maersk Alabama’s orange enclosed lifeboat was lowered by crew members who came out of hiding. Then the captain and the three free pirates transferred to it. The pirate leader was then freed and got into the lifeboat. In exchange, the captain was supposed to be his freed and get back up on the Maersk Alabama with his crew’s assistance.

(Graphic of ship; Maersk Alabama and lifeboat; graphic of lifeboat; photo of pirate; photo of Richard)

LAUER: Now the transfer is going to be made. Now your crew brings the leader of the pirates to you.

Capt. PHILLIPS: He brings him out on deck, yep.

LAUER: Right. He gets on the lifeboat, and you’re supposed to get off. I mean, it’s like, ‘You know, OK.’

Capt. PHILLIPS: Well, I’m actually driving the lifeboat because they don’t know how to drive.

LAUER: Right. And then what happened?

Capt. PHILLIPS: And then he came into the boat, and then he wanted to learn how to run the boat. So I basically gave him a little instructions and then he started steering off the ship. And then I said, ‘OK, we’re going back.’ And he says, ‘Nope.’ That’s the way I learned never to trust a pirate.

LAUER: (Voiceover) For Captain Phillips it had been a disastrous miscalculation. AK-47s still aimed at his head, there was nothing he could do. He was out on a lifeboat, alone with four Somali pirates. These are actual images recorded later of the orange craft racing toward the Somali coast.

(Controls of ship; gun; lifeboat)

LAUER: (Voiceover) What was your feeling at that time?


Capt. PHILLIPS: Three-quarters of my problems were solved. My crew, my ship and my cargo were safe and free, the ship was underway. I just had to worry about myself. I thought of myself as ‘I’m out here in the middle of the Indian Ocean with four pirates. I’m in a tough place.’ But I still felt that I could outwit them or get away from them.

LAUER: Really?

Capt. PHILLIPS: I really felt I could get away from them.

LAUER: You were confident that you’d be OK at that point?

Capt. PHILLIPS: I won’t say OK. I was confident I could get away.

LAUER: (Voiceover) But few others were. Within an hour, news that her husband was being held hostage alone with the pirates had reached Andrea in Vermont, where’d she’d already been besieged by reporters.

(Lifeboat; window of house; crowd of people outside house)

Ms. PHILLIPS: With the media all sitting on my living room couch, at this point I was like, ‘OK, everybody go,’ because it dramatically changed my mood because now he’s one guy with four pirates on a lifeboat.

LAUER: (Voiceover) Meanwhile, the pirates watched in amazement as the Maersk Alabama came back to life.

(Lifeboat; graphic of ship)

Capt. PHILLIPS: Engines are started.

LAUER: So they realized they had been duped in terms of everything that went on on the ship.

Capt. PHILLIPS: Yeah. And on top of that, they saw the Maersk Alabama was coming fairly close to us.

LAUER: Even with you on board the lifeboat?

Capt. PHILLIPS: Even with me on board the lifeboat, which I said, ‘Of course he’s going to run us over. He wants my job.’ And they really got scared and they put me back up on the—to steer the boat.

LAUER: (Voiceover) Soon, though, his humor and optimism wore down.


Capt. PHILLIPS: I mean, I expected to get out pretty quickly, but I—they never gave me a chance.

LAUER: (Voiceover) Eight thousand miles away in Washington, DC, a decision had already been made at the highest level of government.

(Close-up of doors and windows of building; White House)

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

LAUER: (Voiceover) And according to former Navy Rear Admiral Terry McKnight, there was no debate which military asset was best for the job.

(Terry McKnight and others on ship; lifeboat)

Real Admiral TERRY McKNIGHT: The Navy SEALs are a group that are trained in hostage rescue, and so it was determined that since it’s a maritime event that we need to send a SEAL team out there to help and rescue this hostage.

LAUER: (Voiceover) Back in the United States, a giant C-17 cargo jet was prepared to carry the Navy’s elite commandos to the Indian Ocean because, for Captain Phillips, time was running out. Coming up, desperate hours stretch into unbearable days, and the pirates’ mood turns menacing.

(Photos of C-17 jet; jet in flight; photo of Richard; ocean waves; lifeboat and sun)

Capt. PHILLIPS: (Voiceover) They were screaming. They were pacing up and down...


Capt. PHILLIPS: ...taking turns hitting me.

LAUER: (Voiceover) When DATELINE continues.

LAUER: (Voiceover) On a moonlit night, as the Maersk Alabama circled nearby, Captain Richard Phillips was being held hostage in an enclosed lifeboat by four Somali pirates. It was after midnight, Thursday, April 9th, about 18 hours since the pirates first attacked his ship.

(Moon and ocean; graphic of ship; photo of Richard; lifeboat; Maersk Alabama ship)

LAUER: You said, you know, ‘I was sure I was going to die on that boat.’

Capt. PHILLIPS: Well, there’s always hope. I was going to be their adversary, and even if they did kill me, I don’t care, they aren’t—they weren’t going to bend me to their ways.

LAUER: (Voiceover) But he didn’t see a way out. Suddenly, at about 2 AM, a bright light.

(Lifeboat at night; light through window)

Capt. PHILLIPS: It lit up the lifeboat like it was brighter than daylight.

LAUER: (Voiceover) It was the guided missile destroyer the USS Bainbridge.

(Graphic of ship)

Capt. PHILLIPS: It was good to see. I mean, it allayed my thought that, ‘I’m out here, nobody knows I’m out here. I’m all alone. I’m in a little bit of trouble.’

LAUER: The cavalry’s here.

Capt. PHILLIPS: The cavalry basically came in.

LAUER: (Voiceover) The Bainbridge crew negotiated with the pirates to send small Navy boats to get proof that the captain was alive and to drop off food.

(Ships, boats and lifeboat)

Capt. PHILLIPS: The Bainbridge had the frequency for our radios so they were able to communicate. And then the next day they were able to drop another radio, batteries, some water and some food, Pop-Tarts. They dropped it in the water and the pirates went and—went and got it.

LAUER: Pop-Tarts?

Capt. PHILLIPS: So—Pop-Tarts, yeah.

LAUER: (Voiceover) But Captain Phillips was in no mood to eat. The unrelenting sun and humidity nearly smothered him in the enclosed craft. He estimated the temperature at more than 110 degrees. At this point, more than 30 hours had gone by since the pirates first attacked the Maersk Alabama. Shane Murphy was now its acting captain and was reluctant to leave the scene.

(Lifeboat; sun; lifeboat; graphic of ship; Murphy on bridge)

Chief Mate MURPHY: We didn’t have our full crew and we wanted to get Captain Phillips back.

LAUER: (Voiceover) But the Navy wanted his ship to leave immediately. More pirate ships had been spotted nearby. The Maersk Alabama left the scene and its captain Thursday evening. Shane Murphy sent Andrea Phillips an e-mail saying the crew owed the captain their lives. The nearly-full moon shown that night, and, like it had so many times in her life, it gave Andrea Phillips comfort a long way away from her husband.

(Ship phone; speedboat; graphic of ship; house at night; moon; house at night)

Ms. PHILLIPS: It gave me something to stay, again, to stay connected to. And I would just, ‘I’m with you. I’m thinking of you. I’m not going to let you go.’

LAUER: (Voiceover) Back on the Indian Ocean, it was the early hours of Good Friday, April 10th. Nearly two days had gone by since the Maersk Alabama had been attacked, and the captain was still hostage in the lifeboat.

(Ocean; graphic of ship and skiff; lifeboat at night)

LAUER: The conditions have got to deteriorate pretty rapidly. There’s not a lot in the way of food.

Capt. PHILLIPS: Nope.

LAUER: Not a lot in the way of water. There are no sanitary facilities. And you decide at some point you’ve got to figure a way off this lifeboat. You couldn’t be on that lifeboat too much longer.

Capt. PHILLIPS: I was even saying to myself, ‘I’m a wimp. What am I doing? I’m still here.’ And it wasn’t until early on Friday morning that the chance showed itself.

LAUER: (Voiceover) He saw that one of the pirates was relieving himself off the side while the others were sleeping.

(Ocean at night)

LAUER: You’ve got two sleeping in one part of the lifeboat. You’ve got the other guy dozing off in the conning tower, and this guy’s put his gun down.

Capt. PHILLIPS: And then I just said, ‘This is it.’ I pushed him. Had to push him twice. He went screaming into the water, which woke the other pirates. And for a second I was like frozen with that weapon there. But I didn’t know how to use it. I put it away, and I dove in.

LAUER: (Voiceover) You dive in the water. What’s going through your mind?

(Bubbles in water)

Capt. PHILLIPS: I was going to take two breaths, hold it as long as I could. Hopefully they wouldn’t be able to see me because it was nighttime now, albeit the full moon or near-full moon was out there.

LAUER: (Voiceover) He swam as fast as he could toward the Bainbridge, about half a mile away, but the pirates gunned the engine and chased after him, brandishing automatic weapons.

(Ocean; graphic of ship in water; boat speeding through water)

Capt. PHILLIPS: I thought if I was able to get—separate myself from the lifeboat a good outcome would happen.

LAUER: (Voiceover) It wasn’t to be. The Bainbridge crew couldn’t tell what happened, and pirates began to shoot.

(Bubbles in water; lifeboat)

Capt. PHILLIPS: (Voiceover) I think they fired two shots.

(Bubbles and waves)

LAUER: Into the water?

Capt. PHILLIPS: Into the water, not a foot from my head. And that’s when I made a decision, ‘OK. OK. You got me. You got me.’

LAUER: And it’s fair to say at that moment the mood on that lifeboat changed dramatically, didn’t it?

Capt. PHILLIPS: First of all, they were just upset that I’d even think about trying to get away, and they were just incensed. They were screaming. They were pacing up and down the center aisle and taking turns hitting me, smacking me, hitting me with the butt...

LAUER: Hitting you with their fists or the guns?

Capt. PHILLIPS: Their fists, open hands, the guns. They tied me up very, very tight, to the point that, you know, I just lost complete feeling in my hands.

LAUER: In the dive, he had lost his glasses too; and from that point on, he says, he was treated like a caged animal in the cramped confines of the lifeboat. The pirates even staged mock executions.

Capt. PHILLIPS: The leader just started clicking his gun and then just started incantations. That’s when I told him, ‘What are you going to do, kill me?’ They were trying to raise my hands up in this manner and my feet out in an—in—outstretched in the other way. Other guy was behind my head with a gun.

LAUER: (Voiceover) All day Friday, Saturday, and into Sunday the lifeboat raced toward the Somali coast. This is rarely seen US Navy footage of the attempts to slow the lifeboat down using fire hoses and helicopter downdrafts. On Saturday, the pirates fired at the Bainbridge.

(Lifeboat; water being shot at lifeboat; lifeboat and helicopter; lifeboat and pirate)

Unidentified Man #3: (Navy videotape) Shots fired! Shots fired!

LAUER: (Voiceover) But the Navy didn’t return fire, not yet. Inside, a gun pointed at his head, Captain Phillips endured more abuse, humiliation and mind games. Fearing the worst, he had imaginary conversations as his thoughts turned to family and friends at home and beyond.

(Lifeboat and pirate; ocean; inside lifeboat; photo of Richard)

Capt. PHILLIPS: I was apologizing to Andrea for that 2 in the morning or 5 in the morning phone call that her husband was dead. And start thinking about people I’d see, my father who’s dead, a neighbor who died just before I left.

LAUER: (Voiceover) He couldn’t know it then, but a squad of Navy SEALs who’d flown all the way from the United States had already parachuted into the dark ocean. Former Rear Admiral Terry McKnight:

(SEALs jumping from plane; water; McKnight)

Rear Adm. McKNIGHT: As soon as they come out of the plane, they’re ready to go.

LAUER: (Voiceover) And soon they’d be ready to take action. President Obama gave permission to use deadly force if the captain’s life was in imminent danger.

(Speedboat; White House)

LAUER: Now, how tough a call was that to authorize the use of deadly force knowing that one missed shot would cost the life of that the captain?

Pres. OBAMA: You know, one of the things you discover as commander-in-chief is that our military is so well-trained that with confidence I can give them some clear instructions with some clear parameters and have confidence that they will exercise whatever discretion they need effectively.

LAUER: (Voiceover) Commander Frank Castellano of the Bainbridge would be the one to exercise that discretion.

(Photo of Frank Castellano; photo of people on ship)

Rear Adm. McKNIGHT: He deems that his crew or anybody else is in danger...

(Voiceover) ...he has the right to defend his crew and those he’s protecting.

(Ocean and moon)

LAUER: (Voiceover) Coming up, the sharpshooters get their orders.

(Speedboat and lifeboat; lifeboat in gun sights)

Rear Adm. McKNIGHT: Take them out.

LAUER: (Voiceover) And on board the lifeboat?


LAUER: And then all hell broke loose.

Capt. PHILLIPS: Then the shots.

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

LAUER: (Voiceover) Easter Sunday, April 12th, 2009, Captain Richard Phillips had been held at gunpoint in the lifeboat for four days. The pirates had gotten within 30 miles of Somalia. Then, almost out of fuel, they cut the engine. His hands bound tightly, Captain Phillips lashed out at his captors.

(Lifeboat; photo of Richard; graphic of lifeboat)

Capt. PHILLIPS: I basically 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 in this boat.’

LAUER: (Voiceover) Seated inside the lifeboat, he had no idea that a team of Navy SEALs was watching from positions on the stern of the Bainbridge. If worst came to worst, the snipers had a shot at the bobbing craft.

(Lifeboat and speedboat; graphic of lifeboat)

Rear Adm. McKNIGHT: From a thousand yards they could probably tell you, ‘What shoulder you want, left or—left or right shoulder?’ That’s how good—that’s how accurate they are.

LAUER: (Voiceover) As the tense standoff wore on, the Navy checked on Captain Phillips.

(Speedboat and lifeboat)

LAUER: A small Zodiac comes from the Bainbridge, and they bring some food and a bottle of A-1 Steak Sauce. Actually, later you realize that there was a message on that bottle of A-1 Steak Sauce. Do you remember what it said?

Capt. PHILLIPS: Well, I was told later. I couldn’t see it because my glasses were gone from diving. Something to the extent of, ‘Hang on, we’re coming, sir.’

LAUER: (Voiceover) Each time a craft stopped by for what’s called “a proof of life check,” the Navy gathered more information about the layout of the lifeboat.

(Lifeboat and speedboat)

Capt. PHILLIPS: And that was one of the questions they asked me. ‘Where do you sit?’ And I said, ‘I sit right here. This is where I sit.’

LAUER: (Voiceover) They wanted to know exactly where you would be.

(Graphic of lifeboat)

Capt. PHILLIPS: (Voiceover) Exactly where I was, yep.

(Graphic of lifeboat)

LAUER: (Voiceover) Late Sunday afternoon, negotiators allowed the pirates’ leader onto the Bainbridge for medical attention. He had gotten minor wounds when he was grabbed by the crew on the Maersk Alabama. Then, with the lifeboat drifting into waters controlled by rival Somali pirates, the remaining pirates on the lifeboat allowed the the Navy to tow their vessel.

That brought them much closer to the SEALs lying in wait on the Bainbridge, a much easier target. As evening approached off Somalia, in Vermont it was Easter morning.

(Photo of Bainbridge; photo of pirate; ocean; photo of lifeboat; ocean;

graphic of ship and lifeboat; Andrea at window; snow storm)

Ms. PHILLIPS: And it started to snow. And just seeing that snow come down just kind of hit me like, ‘Oh, my God, he’s going to be OK.’ I still can’t even talk about it. And I did—that was one—that was probably the first time I really cried. And I was like, ‘He’s going to be fine.’

LAUER: (Voiceover) But her husband didn’t think that way. With a tether attached to the lifeboat, he was at the end of his own rope.

(Graphic of ship and lifeboat)

LAUER: So here we are, 96 hours into this ordeal, unbelievable conditions. So here you jump up. You say, ‘I’m out of here. I don’t care what you do. I’m getting off this boat.’ There’s a scuffle, and one of the pirates fires his weapon.

Capt. PHILLIPS: They just showed you that they really don’t care about anybody but themselves.

LAUER: (Voiceover) That gunshot was the beginning of the end. After the shot rang out, there was a voice from outside.

(Graphic of ship and lifeboat)

Capt. PHILLIPS: I heard, ‘What’s going on in there? What’s the problem?’

LAUER: Because the Navy, the personnel, were pretty close to the lifeboat.

They were right...

Capt. PHILLIPS: Right.

LAUER: They were there.

Capt. PHILLIPS: And there’s a voice I hadn’t heard. You get to—four days, I know the same voices I’m listening to.

LAUER: (Voiceover) On the Bainbridge there was an instant determination. The captain’s life was in dire jeopardy.

(Lifeboat and pirate)

Rear Adm. McKNIGHT: And the commanding officer of the ship had the authority in the rules of engagement that if his life is in jeopardy is to take out the pirates. Take them out.

LAUER: (Voiceover) On the lifeboat, tempers flared as two of the pirates turned on the one who fired the gun. These were the final seconds.

(Graphic of ship and lifeboat)

Capt. PHILLIPS: The pirates are yelling at him, ‘What’d you do that for? Why’d you do that?’

(Voiceover) I’m on all fours, and I’m seeing their heads go up through the hatch. And they’re yelling, ‘OK. OK. No problem. No problem.’

(Lifeboat; graphic of lifeboat and pirates)

Capt. PHILLIPS: ‘OK. OK.’ You know, to reassure them that...

LAUER: That you were OK.

Capt. PHILLIPS: Yeah. Yeah.

LAUER: (Voiceover) Time stood still. The light was fading. The SEAL team snipers attached night vision scopes to their high-powered rifles, but this was no easy shot. The lifeboat pitched in the sea. One slip by a fraction of an inch could kill the captain. As the two pirates raised their heads from the front of the lifeboat, the third could be seen in the window at top. There was no room for error.

(Graphic of lifeboat; lifeboat in gun sights; graphic of lifeboat and pirates;

lifeboat in gun sights)

LAUER: And then all hell broke loose.

Capt. PHILLIPS: Then the shot.

LAUER: (Voiceover) The Navy SEALs fired at least three shots. The captain thought the pirates were shooting each other.

(Lifeboat through gun sights; graphic of lifeboat)

Capt. PHILLIPS: And I’m going, ‘What the hell are you guys doing? What are you guys doing?’

LAUER: This is extraordinary.

Capt. PHILLIPS: And it was me...

LAUER: You’re hearing these gunshots, and you’re thinking, ‘You know what, the pirates have turned on each other.’

Capt. PHILLIPS: Yep.

LAUER: After all this time, they are now shooting each other.

Capt. PHILLIPS: After the shots, I sort of picked my head up and right behind me is the young pirate who’s taking his gasp on the deck. And the next thing I hear is, ‘Are you OK?’

LAUER: (Voiceover) It was a Navy SEAL dropping down to the lifeboat to rescue him. All three of the pirates on the lifeboat were dead. The alleged leader was in custody on the Bainbridge. Finally, Captain Richard Phillips was free.

(Photo of lifeboat and speedboat; footprints; photo of lifeboat and ships;

Richard being greeted on ship)

Capt. PHILLIPS: (On Bainbridge) Thanks, guys.

Unidentified Man #4: (On Bainbridge) Yep.

Capt. PHILLIPS: (On Bainbridge) Thank you very much.

Pres. OBAMA: Partly because he showed such calm and, I think, handled himself with such exemplary heroism and partly because we just had an incredible team out in the region that was able to execute what was a very difficult operation.

LAUER: (Voiceover) But Andrea Phillips didn’t find out until everyone else. She learned of the rescue while watching TV.

(Andrea walking; Andrea outside in snow)

Ms. PHILLIPS: And I think they basically kind of forgot to call to tell us that he had been saved.

LAUER: (Voiceover) When I first met them last spring, Captain Richard Phillips was hailed as a national hero, a man who didn’t give in to pirates. The captain hit the lecture circuit. But now several Maersk Alabama crew members say the captain is no hero to them.

(Lauer, Andrea and Richard walking; People magazine; photo of Phillips family; Richard at podium; Web page)

LAUER: And in the months following your rescue, several crew members have criticized you personally and publicly. They say you put them and the ship in harm’s way by not going further off the Somali coast. How do you respond to that?

Capt. PHILLIPS: Well, it wasn’t until December that this all came up. It is a legal concern, so there’s not too much I can say. But I will say the—we’re always in those areas.

LAUER: Did you heed the warnings closely enough?

Capt. PHILLIPS: I believe I did.

LAUER: You don’t feel you had any choice to go a different way?

Capt. PHILLIPS: You could go a different way. I don’t think it would matter where we were. You could be a thousand miles out and ships have still been taken.

LAUER: (Voiceover) But, in a lawsuit, several crew members claim the Maersk Alabama’s owner and crew management company were negligent, sending the ship into danger without more security. Those crew members declined DATELINE’s requests for an interview. The ship’s owner, Maersk Line Limited, and the crew management company declined comment on the lawsuit. Chief Mate Shane Murphy, who is not suing, says one thing is for sure, that the other crew members did not get enough praise for their actions.

(Documents; people being photographed; document; Maersk Alabama; Murphy on board ship; Maersk Alabama)

Chief Mate MURPHY: And just seeing how it was portrayed as, you know, the hero captain, the hero captain. So you can see it’s very frustrating for these guys.

LAUER: (Voiceover) In his new book, Captain Phillips praises the crew members’ actions and most of all his rescuers, the Navy SEALs.

(“A Captain’s Duty”; Lauer interviewing Richard)

Capt. PHILLIPS: That was one of the reasons why I wrote the book, “A Captain’s Duty,” was to give them the credit. Because I believe they are the true heroes in this story, and Lord knows they don’t get enough credit for what they do day in and day out.

LAUER: Even now I look at you and I realize there’s an enormous amount of emotion. How much time did you spend over those 96 hours thinking of your family on that boat?

Capt. PHILLIPS: The most telling thing to me, and even now I can feel a welling up in me, was my son and one of the—one of the last things he said to me.

(Voiceover) We have a way of bantering back and forth.

(Photo of Richard and children)

Capt. PHILLIPS: Was, ‘Oh, I don’t have a dad. He’s always at sea. He’s never home.’ And so I was thinking—even now it still affects me, this is really the one thing that affects me—was that was my will to live was I had to get back for him.

LAUER: Prove him wrong.

Capt. PHILLIPS: Prove him wrong, yep.

LAUER: Captain Phillips says he is looking forward to going back to sea a little later on this year. In the meantime, the Somali man accused of being the pirate leader has pleaded not guilty and awaits trial in New York.