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The real Captain Phillips brings story of piracy to St. Vincent College

Joe Napsha
| Friday, Oct. 24, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
Author and Retired American Merchant Marine Captain Richard Phillips, addresses media during a question and answer session inside Luparello Lecture Hall on St. Vincent Campus on Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014.  Phillips served as captain of the MV Maersk Alabama during its hijacking by Somali pirates in April 2009.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Author and Retired American Merchant Marine Captain Richard Phillips, addresses media during a question and answer session inside Luparello Lecture Hall on St. Vincent Campus on Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014. Phillips served as captain of the MV Maersk Alabama during its hijacking by Somali pirates in April 2009.
Author and Retired American Merchant Marine Captain Richard Phillips, photographed inside Luparello Lecture Hall on St. Vincent Campus on Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014.  Phillips served as captain of the MV Maersk Alabama during its hijacking by Somali pirates in April 2009.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Author and Retired American Merchant Marine Captain Richard Phillips, photographed inside Luparello Lecture Hall on St. Vincent Campus on Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014. Phillips served as captain of the MV Maersk Alabama during its hijacking by Somali pirates in April 2009.

The American ship captain held hostage for four days by armed Somali pirates off the coast of Africa in 2009 said he expects that shipping in the Mideast will continue to be the target of piracy, particularly with so many terrorists operating in the region.

“I'm expecting more ships to be hijacked ... with all those terrorist groups. There's hundreds of ships being hijacked, even in front of the Navy, and they (pirates) succeed,” Capt. Richard Phillips said prior to a speech Thursday at St. Vincent College in Unity that drew more than 700 people.

Phillips became famous in April 2009 when Somali pirates hijacked the container ship MV Maersk Alabama off the Somali peninsula in Northeast Africa. He was rescued by Navy SEALs, who killed his three captors after he was held for four days in a lifeboat the pirates had commandeered from his vessel.

The story of the hijacking on the high seas was the subject of a film nominated for Academy and Golden Globe awards — “Captain Phillips,” starring Tom Hanks. The film was released in the fall of 2013.

Phillips, the author of “A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea,” said he knew that Somali pirates were operating off the Horn of Africa and was aware that pirates had taken other ships for ransom. By 2009, piracy had become so frequent that it was “truly a catch and release program, in which authorities caught the culprits but they suffered no repercussions for their crime.

“They truly had a good business plan,” Phillips remarked sarcastically to the audience at the Robert S. Carey Center on campus.

Pirates were so brazen they operated 1,000 miles off the coast of Somalia, said Phillips, a captain for 23 years. According to news reports, the Maersk Alabama was more than 200 miles off the coast when it was boarded by the pirates.

Unlike other ships he piloted which were well-armed with guns, the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama went into international waters off Somalia with no weapons, only rocket flares that did not deter the pirates, Phillips said. He said he believes freighters should have armed guards.

“It was a matter of when, not if we would be in a piracy situation,” Phillips said.

That time came on April 8, 2009, when the Somali pirates boarded the vessel after he had been warned the night before that “Somali pirates are coming to get you.” The hijackers wanted money and one armed with an AK-47 rifle told him it was just “business, relax.” He was not aware of how much, if any money, was promised to the hijackers by the shipping company, but he knew that $13 million was offered for the release of one freighter.

“They thought they were in for a big payday,” Phillips said.

Phillips was taken aboard one of the ship's lifeboats and kept close to the Maersk Alabama as a Navy ship steamed toward them. After two days in captivity, Phillips said his captors became jittery.

“I did not see myself coming out alive,” Phillips said in a news conference prior to the speech.

Navy SEALs shot the pirates after seeing that guns were being pointed at Phillips.

Phillips' version of events surrounding the Somali pirates' capture of the freighter has been challenged by about 11 crew members, who have sued Maersk Alabama Ltd., the ship's owner, in federal court. They have claimed that the owners permitted the ship to sail into pirate-infested waters, according to the website of Houston attorney Brian Beckcom, who represents the crew.

Phillips said he spent four days giving a deposition in the case.

Responding to criticism by the crew of the events depicted in the movie that they claim were fictionalized, Phillips said it was a movie.

“I think it is sour grapes,” Phillips said.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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