The pirate cook smuggled food to the terrified hostages held by his gang off the Somali coast. He bought them cell phone cards. And when the pirates started talking about harvesting their organs for cash, he sneaked them guns.
The hostages killed the pirates and escaped. But now the life of the Somali cook, known only as Ahmed, is in danger. Despite actions the crew described as heroic, European Union nations, Syria and nearby Djibouti have all refused to take him, according to an official who was not authorized to talk.
Ahmed has since disappeared. It is thought to be the first time someone working for the pirates has turned against them to help hostages.
"Sending him back to (Somalia's) shore would be putting him to death for his compassion," said John S. Burnett, the author of "Dangerous Waters: Modern Piracy and Terrorism on the High Seas." "This smacks of a bureaucratic bungle ... it's a line in the sand. No Somali pirate will ever risk showing any modicum of compassion again if he knows he's not going to get any help from the authorities."
The tale began Feb. 2, when the pirates hijacked the MV Rim, a Libyan-owned, North Korean-flagged cargo ship in the Gulf of Aden. The crew radioed international navies, but help arrived 15 minutes after the pirates seized the ship. International naval forces patrolling the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean off Somalia generally don't intervene militarily after pirates take a ship because of the danger to the crew.
$300,000 ransom demand
During the first two months, the pirates gave food and water to the crew of one Romanian and nine Syrians. But when talks about the $300,000 ransom went nowhere, the pirates grew impatient. The crew got little food or water, Virgil Teofil Cretu, the 36-year-old Romanian crew member, said in an interview in Costanta, Romania.
Cretu, who as the coxswain had steered the ship, and the Syrian sailors drank rainwater and cooked rice in seawater. Their diet was augmented by whatever Ahmed could sneak to them.
Various pirate groups bought and sold the ship and crew, Cretu said. One of the rotating pirate guards was a gun-wielding 13-year-old. Ahmed bought a SIM card to use in a cell phone the crew had hidden from the pirates, so the hostages could speak with relatives.
But the negotiations were not going well. No one from North Korea, Libya or Syria would agree to pay a ransom.
On June 2, Ahmed told the crew that the pirates had decided to kill them and harvest their organs to get some money out of the seajacking. Ahmed secretly passed the crew three Kalashnikovs. That's when "all hell broke loose," according to Cretu.
"There were six pirates guarding us. We started shooting. I shot like mad. The pirates were taken by surprise. They opened fire, shot each other also by mistake," said Cretu, who was wounded in the back during the firefight. "This lasted for about 45 minutes. All in all, we annihilated them pretty quickly. Some we threw overboard, to the sharks."
"It was like being in a commando fight. In fact, my Syrian colleagues on board nicknamed me Rambo afterward," said Cretu. He credited his compulsory military service with getting him through the fight.
One last pirate who had hid in a cabin jumped overboard himself when the ship started sailing. All six pirates were killed or went overboard.
The crew started their engines and steamed away, pursued by more pirates in another hijacked vessel. The MV Rim's old engines stalled, but an EU Naval Force helicopter swooped down just before the pirates closed in, hovering between the two ships and buying precious minutes.
After the crew was taken off the MV Rim, the EU Naval Force let the ship drift in the Gulf of Aden. Cretu said the ship was to have been scrapped after delivering in India a load of kaolin, a soft white clay used in making porcelain and many other products.
Now the crew has gone home, but Ahmed is nowhere to be found. His last known location was the Dutch warship Johan de Witt.
"In my mind, cook Ahmed was an angel sent by God," said Cretu. "Without his intervention, without his courage, we would have been dead."
The EU Naval Force won't say if he was set ashore in Somalia — where he faced execution by pirates or clan members of the brigands who died — or sent away alone in a small boat to navigate the high seas at the beginning of monsoon season. EU Naval Force officials said they had investigated repatriation and migration options for Ahmed but would not give details.
The MV Rim was Cretu's first job as a ship's crew member. On Thursday, he boarded a ship on the Danube River in Romania to start his second high-seas adventure.
Ahmed remains on his mind.
"I owe my life to my Somali friend and I want to take him into my home if possible so he and his family can change their lives," said Cretu.