For five days in April 2009, Captain Richard Phillips became the center of an extraordinary international drama when he was captured by Somali pirates who attacked and boarded his ship.
The hostage began on Wednesday, April 8, when a small band of pirates swung a ladder from their skiff onto the Maersk Alabama, a container ship ferrying food aid to East Africa. With the pirates firing at the vessel’s bridge as they climbed aboard the ship, many of the crew members scrambled into a designated safe room aboard the vessel.
On the bridge, the pirates held three then four sailors at gunpoint, but the crew of 18 outnumbered the four attackers. They crew managed to take the leader of the pirates hostage wounding him in the hand with a knife and regained control. The crew demanded the other pirates leave the ship, But the pirates had scuttled their own small boat. They demanded an escape boat, fuel and food.
To protect his crew, Captain Phillips made a conscious decision to put himself directly in harm’s way, knowing full well that he might pay the ultimate price for his decision. Amid the standoff, he offered himself as a hostage to get them off the Maersk Alabama.
Once the pirates settled into one of the ship’s covered lifeboats, the crew attempted to trade the pirate they had captured for Captain Phillips. After they released their captive, the pirates refused to honor the agreement and fled with Captain Phillips. Held hostage as a human shield in a small lifeboat with three pirates, he had little to hope for or cling to—except the knowledge that he had done absolutely everything he could to save the lives of the 18 sailors aboard his ship.
The U.S. Navy responded to the scene, and negotiations were ongoing between the pirates and the captain of the USS Bainbridge. On Friday, April 10, Captain Phillips jumped out of the lifeboat and managed to swim toward the nearby destroyer, but the pirates went in after him and managed to haul him back in. The standoff dragged on until April 12, when Navy SEAL snipers saw one of the pirates aim his AK-47 machine gun at Capt. Richard Phillips’s back and concluded he was in “imminent danger.”
On that Sunday morning, Navy SEAL snipers took three remarkable shots and hit the three captors holding Captain Phillips. Within minutes, rescuers were on scene and Phillips was rescued off the lifeboat, and the three pirates were dead. They then freed Captain Phillips, ending the sea drama that had gathered much of the world’s attention for many days.
President Barack Obama, who spoke with Captain Phillips by phone after he was freed, said, “I share the country’s admiration for the bravery of Captain Phillips and his selfless concern for his crew. His courage is a model for all Americans.”
Captain Phillips is the author of A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirate , Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea, the story of his experience and his remarkable rescue. This dramatic story is also being made into a motion picture by Columbia Pictures.
Captain Phillips is a graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, a member of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots Union, and a licensed American merchant mariner. He became Captain of the MV Maersk Alabama in 2008. Captain Phillips married Andrea Coggio in 1987. They have two children, Mariah and Danny, and reside in Underhill, VT.