When Somali pirates forced Ricahrd Phillips to give up his crew, he had to stall by any means—or face the death of all his men. A tense scene from the memoir of the real Captain Phillips.
The film Captain Phillips, out in theaters today, dramatizes the story of a real-life pirate attack that gripped the world in April 2009, when Somali gunmen boarded the Maersk Alabama and took its captain, Richard Phillips (played by Tom Hanks), hostage, demanding money. The movie is based on Phillips’s 2010 book A Captain’s Duty, co-written with Stephan Talty. In this excerpt of the first-person account, the pirates have just boarded the Maersk Alabama, and found only Phillips and two crewmembers (Colin and ATM) on deck. The others are locked in the safe room, and Phillips is determined to keep them away from the pirates. He’s told by the pirate leader (simply called the Leader at this point in the book, and played by Barkhad Abdi in the film) to order the crew to report to the bridge through the PA system, but instead drops hints—like dangerous pirates are threatening to shoot us all—that actually signal them to remain hidden. The pirates (Tall Guy and Musso) have had it with Phillips’s repeated stalling.
“We are like hungry wolves running after meat.”
—Somali pirate leader Shamun Indhabur, Newsweek.com, December 18, 2008
The bridge was getting steamy. The temperature on the water in the Gulf of Aden can reach 100 and above. I knew we were going to get dehydrated quickly in that glass cage. The pirates had the bridge door, which was usually left open to let in a breeze, shut tight.
“Where are the crew?” the Leader asked.
“I have no idea where they are, I’m here with—”
“Bring up crew NOW!” he screamed. “You have two minutes. If not, these guys are going to kill you.”
Suddenly the two pirates at the wings rushed in and raised their AK- 47s and pointed them over the console at ATM and Colin cowering on the floor. They jabbed the barrels down toward their faces, screaming.
“You want to die?!” they shouted. “Two minutes, we kill you.”
“Calm down, calm down,” I said. “I’m doing my best.”
“Now minute thirty,” Tall Guy yelled, his eyes bulging. He pointed the gun at my belly.
“They’re serious,” the Leader said. “I told you this. Bad guys, bad guys.”
I got back on the PA system. “All crew, all crew,” I called. “Report to bridge immediately. Pirates want you on bridge now.”
The Leader looked at me, his eyes cold.
“Can you do something with these guys?” I said. “Before someone gets shot?”
He just looked at me and shrugged.
“I’m just a poor Somali,” he said. “But I tell you this. You better get somebody up here right now.”
“One minute!” said Tall Guy. “We kill everyone.”
I gestured with my hands, Easy, easy. My heart was racing, my hands felt like they were covered with porcupine quills. Was I going to watch my two crewmen die? If they shot one, I knew, they would go through the ship and shoot us all.
“Pirates threatening to shoot us,” I called on the PA and radio. “They want people on the bridge now.”
“Thirty seconds!” Musso shouted. “YOU HEAR ME? Thirty seconds and you die.”
Tall Guy and Musso rushed toward Colin and ATM and jabbed their AKs violently down, as if they were daggers and they were going to impale my crewmen. The look on Colin’s and ATM’s faces was pure terror. The Leader ran over and put his hands on Tall Guy’s chest and pushed him back.
“Dangerous pirates,” he said to me. “Bring someone now!”
“What else can I do?” I yelled at the Leader.
He shrugged his shoulders.
I keyed the radio. “If you don’t hear from us in one minute, we’ll be gone. You’ll get no quarter from them.” I wanted the crew to know they’d have to kill these guys if the shooting started. There would be no other way out of this. No surrender.
“Bring the crew up now,” the Leader said. “Bring them up to the bridge now or we’ll blow the ship up.”
I stared at him. Did he just say “blow the ship up?”
“Yes, we have a bomb. We will blow up the ship in thirty seconds.”
I didn’t believe them. I’d seen the bucket come up and there was nothing that looked like explosives in it. I began to sense they were bluffing for a quick end to the crew’s standoff.
Young Guy, watching me from the bridge wing, smiled at me. There was something odd in his face, as if he were enjoying what the Somalis were putting us through. As if he were watching this all on TV.
The deadline passed. I took a deep breath. It was our first hurdle—they weren’t willing to kill us just yet.
I was running around shutting off the alarms, which kept tripping and restarting. I would occasionally key my radio and send off a quick update on what was happening on the bridge.
Or I would strategize.
I had an idea where the crew was—the aft steering—but I couldn’t be sure. Maybe there were guys still sleeping, maybe wandering the hallways. They were keeping their positions secret, so that the pirates wouldn’t storm down and take them hostage. Later I found out that at that moment, Shane was up in the forward crane, spying on us. And the chief engineer was walking around the ship. The other guys were in after steering, the backup safe room we’d discussed during the drill when the chief engineer brought up the idea of having one. I knew they must be suffering down there; it would be 100 degrees or above. And there were guys in their sixties and seventies on the crew. If I left them there too long, hyperthermia—heat stress—would set in. They would get dehydrated, then the symptoms would hit them: confusion, hostility, intense headache, reddening skin, dropping blood pressure. Then chills and convulsions as the condition progressed. And, finally, coma.
There were really three clocks ticking on us: how long before the arrival of the mother ship; how long before my crew was affected by heat stroke; and how long before the cavalry arrived. I tried to calculate all three in my head at once.
But I knew I had to get the pirates off the ship as soon as possible.
The minutes clicked by.
Musso and Tall Guy charged back onto the bridge.
“Two minutes!” Musso shouted. He stood above Colin and pointed the AK at his face from five feet away.
“Captain, bring up the crew,” the Leader said from behind them. “Pirates angry now.”
“I’m here with you!” I half-shouted. “What do you want me to do? I don’t know where these guys are.”
“Crew NOW!” yelled Tall Guy. “Or we shoot everyone.”
You can’t pull the same trick twice and expect it to have the same impact. As menacing as those automatic rifles were, I felt the Somalis were bluffing. If they wanted to kill us, they would have executed one of my men already. The sight of the guns still made my heart race, but I didn’t quite believe they were going to start shooting.
The Somalis counted down again, minute thirty, minute, thirty seconds, twenty… ATM and Colin had their heads bowed. I felt the sweat roll down my forehead and sting my eyes.
Again, the deadline came and went. Tall Guy and Musso stared angrily at me before saying something to the Leader and walking off to the bridge wings. I felt my spirits lift. These guys were just businessmen, after all. Crooked, violent, thuggish businessmen, but they weren’t going to waste precious resources like human lives unless they had to.
All of a sudden I heard a knock. I couldn’t believe my ears. Someone was knocking on the bridge door looking to get in with the pirates. I thought to myself, I bet I know who that is.
The pirates didn’t hear a thing. They were too fixated on terrifying us. I prayed, Let him just go away.
Knock, knock. Louder this time.
The Leader looked at me.
“Do you want me to get that?” I said.
I walked over to the bridge door and swung it open. It was one of my sailors. I pointed toward Colin and ATM.
“Come on in,” I said. “You’re dead.”
The newcomer looked at me.
“Go sit over there with the rest of them,” I said.
“Okay, Cap,” he said, and walked toward his mates.
The sailor’s appearance seemed to give the pirates an idea. Instead of waiting for the crew to come to them, they would go track them down. After all, if this sailor was just wandering around the ship, knocking on doors, how hard could it be to find the rest of the sailors?
The Leader pointed at me.
“We want to walk around,” the Leader said. “You come with me.”
From A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs and Dangerous Days At Sea by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty. Copyright © 2010 Richard Phillips. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.