The crew of the M/V Maersk Alabama acted quickly to take control of key areas of the vessel after Somali pirates attacked on April 8, according to a crewmember’s account obtained by the Voice. (The text of the email can be found after the jump.)
The insider’s emailed account of the initial day of the drama offers details that have been somewhat overlooked in the articles about the U.S. Navy rescue of the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips, after four days as a hostage.
The crewmember tells friends that by the time the pirates had commandeered the bridge, the chief engineer and two other crewmen had taken control of the engine and steering rooms.
The pirates initially captured the captain and three crewmembers on the unsecured bridge. But the rest of the crew was able to flee to the relative safety of the lower parts of the vessel.
“We kept swinging the rudder side to side,” the crewman says. “The pirates’ boat capsized … after about 20 minutes, the engine was killed, I don’t know by whom. At that point I shut off the air bottles and Mike [the chief engineer] killed power. He was also able to get outside and trip the fuel shutoff for the EDG [emergency generator].”
Once the power was out, the interior of the ship was pitch black.
“The pirates were very reluctant to go into the dark,” the crewman says.
The crew retreated into the area where the huge steering mechanisms are housed, and locked the door.
“Our pirates didn’t have any grenades, so they never would have been able to break in there,” he writes. “The only problem was the heat and the shortage of water.”
The crew created a makeshift water source from a line to the engine room water fountain and some empty oil containers. They snuck into the galley and obtained fruit and soda.
Meanwhile, the pirates made a series of mistakes.
They allowed the third mate to search for crew without an escort. The chief engineer jumped a lone pirate who was also sent to look for other hostages, and took him prisoner. (Reportedly the pirate was stabbed in the hand with an icepick.)
“No one else came into the engine room,” he says. “As the day went on, the pirates became desperate to get out of there.”
The captain convinced the pirates to use a small boat aboard the vessel. But that boat wouldn’t start. Two crewmembers then dropped a lifeboat into the water and the pirates moved over to that, with some provisions from the crew.
The two sides had negotiated a trade: the captain for the hostage pirate. But at the last minute, the pirates welched on the deal. They left with the captain on the lifeboat.
The crew then re-started the vessel and trailed after the pirates for several hours.
“The Navy asked us to head out,” the crewman writes. “I heard that several other pirate vessels were heading our way and the Navy wanted us out of the way.”
The message, which was written before Navy snipers killed three pirates with three headshots, closes with a hopeful note about the fate of their captain:
“They have to know that if they kill him, they’ll be done,” he writes. “I assume the company will be forced into taking some kind of action to assure our security from now on.”
Here’s the crew member’s email, in its entirety:
Everyone on here is okay. We’re on our way to Mombasa with Navy protection on board. Captain Phillips is still hostage in the lifeboat with the 4 pirates. I hear they’re flying out reliefs for everyone, but I’m not sure what all’s going to happen once we get to Mombasa. Supposedly the FBI is coming out to investigate the crime. Maybe we’ll be on the next CSI Somalia.
I wanted to let you know some of the lessons we learned so you guys can better prepare yourselves for something similar. The only guys actually captured by the pirates were on the bridge: Capt, 3/M, and 2 AB’s.
I don’t really know why they stayed on the bridge until the pirates got up there. Then they had keys to everything and were able to unlock everyone’s rooms. The pirates got up to the bridge very quickly once they were onboard. We had a locked cage door over the ladder well from main deck, but it only took a second for them to shoot it off. They then got to the bridge up the outside ladders. By that time we had taken control of the engine and steering down below. Mike stayed in the ECR and the C/M was out on deck tracking the pirates’ movement. We kept swinging the rudder side to side. The pirates’ boat capsized, though I’m not sure exactly when or what caused it. After about 20 minutes the engine was killed, I don’t know by whom. At that point I shut off the air bottles and Mike killed power. He was also able to get outside and trip the fuel shutoff for the EDG
I think this was critical. The pirates were very reluctant to go into the dark.We will be looking at a way to shut off the EDG from the ECR in the future. All the crew had been mustered and secured in the steering gear.
Our pirates didn’t have any grenades, so they would have never been able to break in there. The previous day we had welded a padeye on the inside of the hatch to the fantail so it was secured from the inside. The only problem with the steering gear was the heat and the shortage of water. In the future we will store food and water in various spots for emergency usage.
I think we will also run a fresh water line into the steering gear. We were able to make a run from the steering gear to the E/R water fountain and fill up some empty oil sample bottles we had back there. The C/M was also able to get some fruit and sodas from the galley and drop them down the line standpipe. The pirates sent the 3/M unescorted to go look for crewmembers, so he was able to get away. One of the pirates then went with an AB down to the E/R to look for people. Mike was able to jump him in the dark and we took him prisoner in the steering gear. No one else came down into the E/R. As the day went on the pirates became desperate to get out of there. There boat was sunk, and they couldn’t get our ship moving.
The Captain talked them into taking the MOB boat. The three remaining pirates went down in the MOB boat with Phillips. We were then able to negotiate with them over the radio. We dropped some food, water and diesel to them. We started getting the plant back on line.
Unfortunately, the MOB boat wouldn’t start. A couple of guys got in the lifeboat and dropped it. They motored over and traded the lifeboat for the MOB boat. We were supposed to exchange their guy for the Captain, but they ended up keeping him. They motored off in the lifeboat. They had no way of getting back aboard, so we followed them. The Navy showed up a few hours later. We stayed close by for some time, but then the Navy asked us to head out. I heard that several other pirate vessels were heading our way and the Navy wanted us out of the way. That’s about it. I’ll give you all the details some other time.
Just to reiterate the most important points: Have a well fortified location with food and water supply.
Kill all the lights.
Leave the alarms going, the noise helped cover our movements through the house. Flashlights and radios are very handy, as well as the sound-powered phone.
Anyway,it was a pretty stressful situation. I have to say I am impressed with how the entire crew responded. We didn’t have anybody who wanted to give up. I’m pretty confident that Phillips will end up ok. They have to know that if they kill him they’ll be done. I assume the company will be forced into taking some kind of action to assure our security from now on.
UPDATE: Rayman talks to shipping expert who says arming merchant seamen isn’t the answer.