- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 12, 2009

MOMBASA, KENYA (AP) - The lifeboat containing the tied-up hostage captain of the Maersk Alabama had been bobbing in the water for five days, stalked by a small flotilla of American warships.

There was no end in sight to the standoff between a small band of pirates and the U.S. Navy. Talks between the two sides to negotiate the hostage’s release were getting nowhere.

Quietly, the White House had laid down rules of engagement for officers on the destroyer USS Bainbridge: If the captain’s life is in imminent danger, attack.

At the end of the fifth day, the waters in the Gulf of Aden dark and choppy, the Americans on the Bainbridge peered at the lifeboat and saw something new happening. One of the pirates had an AK-47 aimed at the captain’s back.

Navy snipers on the destroyer’s fantail took aim at the pirates’ heads and shoulders. The commander gave the split-second order: Fire. All three pirates were picked off. The captain was safe.

It was the culmination of five days of international tension and gamesmanship on the high seas. At stake was the life of a 53-year-old, no-nonsense sea captain from Vermont who volunteered himself as a hostage to save his crew.

___

Richard Phillips said goodbye to his wife, Andrea, left their home in the small Vermont town of Underhill at the end of March and made his way halfway around the world to join the ship.

His task was to pilot the Alabama, which at 500 feet long is relatively small for a container ship, on its trip from Oman and Djibouti to Mombasa, Kenya, to deliver 401 containers of food as aid.

Phillips is 6 feet tall and burly, with a salt-and-pepper beard and a thick Boston accent. People who know him say he has a keen sense of humor, always ready to regale friends with tales from the high seas.

At the helm, however, they say he is all business, a sailor’s sailor. He diligently conducts emergency drills, including what to do if pirates attack. He is particular to the point of perfection.

Aboard the Alabama, Phillips kept in touch with his wife by e-mail. He wrote to her that they were headed for Mombasa, on the coast of Kenya, just south of the Horn of Africa.

And he told her something else. He had heard, he wrote, that pirate traffic was up.

___

The bandits announced themselves first with grappling hooks and then with gunfire.

It was early Wednesday, so early that some of the Alabama’s crew of 20 were still in their bunks. The pirates, four Somalis, tossed the hooks over the stern of the ship, hoisted themselves aboard and began firing into the air.

As they shot, Phillips told his crew to lock themselves in a cabin. He surrendered himself as a hostage to keep his men safe, according to the crew.

The usual intention of pirates is not to kill but to extort, and they have done so successfully, to the tune of millions of dollars. And in general, the crews of ships like the Alabama carry no arms. When pirates attack, the defense is improvised and decidedly low-tech: They spray the bandits with hoses, or hurl old oil drums, or kick their ladders overboard.

Aboard the Alabama, the weapon of choice was an ice pick. ATM Reza, a Connecticut father and member of the crew, led one of the pirates, a small, skinny man, into the steamy engine room. There, he says, he stabbed the pick into the pirate’s hand.

Now the pirates had Phillips, and the crew had a hostage of its own. According to accounts provided by the crew to their families, the crew gave up the pirate in hopes the pirates would give up their captain.

They did not. The pirates escaped to a lifeboat, taking the captain with them.

___

On Wednesday, the Navy sent a destroyer, the USS Bainbridge, chugging toward the Maersk Alabama. By Thursday, its crew, coached by FBI hostage negotiators, was talking to the pirates.

If the military tried to attack, the bandits said, they would kill Phillips.

Lifeboats used by ships like the Alabama are generally about 28 feet long, with enough food and water to sustain 34 people for 10 days, said Joseph Murphy, whose son, Shane, was second-in-command on the Alabama.

They are enclosed, with ports that can open and close. And they are uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that one crew member said Phillips was essentially surviving inside a 120-degree oven.

It was about midnight on the ocean, Thursday turning to Friday, when Phillips made a break for it.

He jumped out of the lifeboat and began to swim for his life. One of the captors fired an automatic weapon _ perhaps at Phillips, perhaps only as a warning, either way enough to show that the pirates meant business. Phillips swam back to the lifeboat.

The USS Bainbridge was still several hundred yards away from the lifeboat _ not nearly close enough to save him on his escape attempt. But the sailors on board were close enough to see that, back in the lifeboat, Phillips was moving around and talking.

He appeared _ so far _ to be unharmed.

___

By Friday, the tense standoff in the Gulf of Aden was the very definition of an asymmetrical conflict: Four pirates, holding one hostage and bobbing in a lifeboat, versus the United States Navy.

The Bainbridge kept constant watch, stalking the small boat from a distance. Its namesake, William Bainbridge, was a U.S. naval officer who two centuries ago fought the Barbary pirates off the coast of north Africa.

The destroyer was soon joined by the frigate USS Halyburton, which carries helicopters, and then by the amphibious USS Boxer, which is the size of an aircraft carrier and can launch missiles.

It was early Friday night in Washington, Saturday morning over the Indian Ocean, when President Barack Obama authorized the Defense Department to use military force to rescue the sea captain, according to administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

And as the standoff entered its fourth day, the president broadened the order so that it encompassed more military personnel and other equipment that had arrived in the Indian Ocean.

According to a timeline of events released by the White House, it was Saturday evening when the National Security Council presented the president its last update on its plans for rescuing Phillips.

The message from the White House to the USS Bainbridge: If Phillips’ life is in danger, take action.

___

Back in Underhill, Vt., on Green Street, congregrants filed into St. Thomas Church for early Mass on Easter Sunday. Phillips worships there when he is stateside. They listened to Rev. Charles Danielson talk about good and evil, life and death.

“The world of terror and war and greed,” he said, “the world of pirates and criminals large and small who prey on individuals, whole nations and regions of the world, they are the ones on the wrong side of history.”

Elsewhere in Underhill, someone used a four-line roadside display sign to put up a message in block letters: “PRAY FOR CAPT PHILLIPS RELEASE AND SAFE RETURN HOME.”

In the Indian Ocean, negotiations between the Navy and the pirates were not going well. One pirate surrendered Sunday, but three remained on the boat, Vice Adm. Bill Gortney said. And the negotiations with the remaining three were growing heated.

In the darkened seas, the crew of the Bainbridge, roughly 100 feet away from the bobbing lifeboat, could see that the pirates had tied Phillips up.

Then, at about noon Eastern time on Sunday, early evening on the water, they saw something else: One of the pirates was aiming at Phillips’ back. The commander of the Bainbridge gave the order for Navy snipers to fire.

All three pirates on the lifeboat were killed. Phillips was spirited to safety. It was 12:19 p.m. EDT Sunday.

At the White House, Obama was in the residence when he took a telephone call from an aide: The standoff was over. Phillips was safe.

Aboard the Alabama, now safely docked in Mombasa, Phillips’ crew pumped their fists into the air and shot off red flares.

“This crew is American, right here! We’re going to celebrate!” one man said.

“We made it!” shouted Reza, the father from Connecticut.

Another had a warning for Somali pirates, who still hold 200 hostages from around the world: “Now we know how to beat ‘em. Word’s out!”

In a photograph provided by the Navy, Phillips appeared unharmed, indeed almost casual _ wearing a blue windbreaker and a cap, smiling and shaking the hand of Bainbridge Cmdr. Frank Castellano.

Aboard the Bainbridge, sailors passed along a message from Andrea Phillips to her husband: “Richard, your family loves you, your family is praying for you, and your family is saving a chocolate Easter egg for you, unless your son eats it first.”

The captain, in a call to the president of Maersk Line Limited, deflected praise.

“I’m just the byline,” he said, according to the company. “The real heroes are the Navy, the Seals, those who have brought me home.”

He was flown from the Bainbridge to the USS Boxer, where he took a call from the president. Obama placed a call to Underhill to speak to Phillips’ wife. And not far from the Phillips’ home, the roadside sign was changed by Sunday afternoon.

It said, “CAPT PHILLIPS RESCUED AND SAFE.”

___

Elizabeth A. Kennedy reported from Mombasa, Kenya. Erin McClam reported from New York. Associated Press writers Lara Jakes and Philip Elliott contributed to this report from Washington.

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