Crew on US ship say Somali pirates hold captain
|Mass. Maritime President and Admiral Richard Gurnon, left, and professor and Capt. Joseph Murphy talk with reporters regarding two former students, which were aboard a ship they were piloting that was hijacked by pirates off the coast of Africa, Wednesday April 8, 2009 in Buzzard's Bay, Mass. Graduates Richard Phillips was the captain and Shane Murphy was second in command aboard the cargo ship Maersk Alabama. Capt. Joseph Murphy, who teaches a course in security and piracy at the Mass. Maritime Academy, is Shane Murphy's father.|
NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) -- The American crew of a hijacked U.S.-flagged ship retook control of the vessel from Somali pirates Wednesday but the captain was still being held hostage in a lifeboat hundreds of miles off the Horn of Africa, crew members said.
U.S. officials said an American warship and a half-dozen other ships were headed to the scene.
Ship operator Maersk Lines Limited confirmed that the crew had taken back the 17,000-ton Maersk Alabama and were unharmed but the captain was being held by pirates away from the cargo ship.
"They're on another boat," spokesman Kevin Speers said. He gave no other details.
The second-in-command, Capt. Shane Murphy of Seekonk, Massachusetts, called his wife at 10 a.m EDT and told her that pirates had taken over the ship, which was carrying food aid for Africa, before dawn local time.
Murphy said that he was now in charge because pirates had taken away the captain, Serena Murphy, 31, told The Associated Press from her front doorstep.
The vessel had 20 U.S. nationals onboard before the hijacking, Maersk said.
Andrea Phillips, the wife of Capt. Richard Phillips of Underhill, Vermont, said her husband had sailed in the waters off Somalia "for quite some time" and a hijacking was perhaps "inevitable."
"They've been relatively safe, for the most part. I guess maybe it was inevitable," she said. "My husband is a pretty smart man. He knows the protocol. He'll do what he needs to do to keep the crew safe."
Colin Wright, who identified himself as a third mate aboard the ship, told the AP by phone that, "Somalian pirates have one of our crew members in our lifeboat and we are trying to recover that crew member."
At one point, the pirates had held the boat and the entire crew of Americans. Wright said: "We're really busy right now, but you can call back in an hour or two."
The U.S. Navy said that the ship was hijacked early Wednesday about 280 miles (450 kilometers) southeast of Eyl, a town in the northern Puntland region of Somalia.
U.S. Navy spokesman Lt. Nathan Christensen said the closest U.S. ship at the time of the hijacking was 345 miles (555 kilometers)away.
The Navy established a command center in Norfolk, Virginia, to relay information between the company and government officials and Navy field operations in the region. They were in constant communication throughout the evening, said Senate Commerce Committee spokeswoman Jena Longo.
President Barack Obama was following the situation closely, foreign policy adviser Denis McDonough said.
U.S. officials said an American Navy destroyer, the USS Bainbridge, was headed for the scene along with at least six other vessels. The Bainbridge was among several U.S. ships, including the cruiser USS Gettysburg, that had been patrolling in the region but were several hours away when the Maersk Alabama was seized.
The Bainbridge is a guided-missile destroyer carrying Tomahawk cruise missiles, torpedoes and two MH-60 Knighthawk helicopters armed with Hellfire missiles.
It was not clear what the military crews would do when they got to the scene. Options could include negotiation, backed by force.
It was the sixth vessel seized within a week, a rise that analysts attribute to a new strategy by Somali pirates operating far from the warships patrolling the busiest shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden. Cmdr. Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, said that it was the first pirate attack "involving U.S. nationals and a U.S.-flagged vessel in recent memory." She did not give an exact timeframe.
The ship was carrying emergency food relief to Mombasa, Kenya, when it was hijacked, the Copenhagen-based container shipping group A.P. Moller-Maersk said.
The vessel's manifest showed it was carrying 401 containers of food aid from USAID, Serving God Ministries, the World Food Program and Catholic Relief, said John F. Reinhart, president and CEO of Maersk Line Ltd
Merchant crews aren't supposed to fight pirates, short of using high-pressure hoses to try to stop them from climbing aboard, Reinhart said.
"They (the crews) don't have any weapons, so it would be inappropriate for them to try to be heroes. We'd like them to come home safely," he told a news conference.
Capt. Joseph Murphy, a professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, said his son was a 2001 graduate who recently talked to a class about the dangers of piracy.
The younger Murphy wrote on his Facebook profile that he worked in waters between Oman and Kenya "infested with pirates that highjack (sic) ships daily,"
"I feel like it's only a matter of time before my number gets called," he wrote on the page, which features a photograph of him.
Somali pirates are trained fighters who frequently dress in military fatigues and use speedboats equipped with satellite phones and GPS equipment. They are typically armed with automatic weapons, anti-tank rocket launchers and various types of grenades. Far out to sea, their speedboats operate from larger mother ships.
Since January, pirates have staged 66 attacks, and they are still holding 14 ships and 260 crew members as hostages, according to the International Maritime Bureau, a watchdog group based in Kuala Lumpur.
There are fewer than 200 U.S.-flagged vessels in international waters, said Larry Howard, chair of the Global Business and Transportation Department at SUNY Maritime College in New York.
Roger Middleton, a piracy expert at the London-based think tank Chatham House, said the anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden have pushed the pirates into the Indian Ocean - a much vaster area where backup is no longer quickly in reach.
"Now that the pirates are launching attacks in the Indian Ocean, they have this huge area," Middleton said.
Ships trying to protect themselves against pirates are recommended to constantly be on the lookout for pirates, travel at full speed, and take evasive procedures such as using water cannons and fire hoses to flood the engines of the pirates' skiffs, Middleton said.
But even those procedures aren't foolproof in the face of pirates often armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.
"They have guns, and the crew don't," Middleton said.