Jittery pirates, a failed escape – and Navy SEALs who dropped from the night sky
Drug-craving pirates, parachuting Navy SEALs and split-second heroism: new details about the high-seas rescue of Capt. Richie Phillips seem straight out of an episode of 24 – with Phillips, a gruff ex-cabbie and snowboarding Celtics fan, in the role of Jack Bauer.
One of the 19 crewmen aboard the Maersk Alabama – the U.S.-flagged container ship attacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean April 8 – tells PEOPLE that Phillips’s quick thinking helped avert a bigger tragedy. “He put his life completely on the line for us,” says the crewman, John (who requested that his last name not be used). “He’s a very stubborn guy from Vermont. He lets you know he’s the captain of the ship.”
The four armed Somali pirates, none older than 19, used grappling hooks to board the Alabama under cover of darkness. They quickly sank their own speedboat – a common tactic meant to cut off escape options. But by then, the crew, which had been dodging the speedboat for days, had gone into emergency mode, cutting off the Alabama‘s power and locking themselves in rooms below deck.
Phillips and two others stayed on deck to confront the pirates. “They threatened to kill him if he didn’t bring the crew up,” says John. When one pirate went below deck to search for hostages, a crewman jumped him and another stabbed him in the hand with an ice pick. They dragged the wounded pirate into one of their safe rooms and kept him there while Phillips negotiated with the other Somalis on deck. Says John, one of the crewmen minding the captured pirate, “I spent 12 hours in a room that was about 130 degrees.”
Then things came to a head. Phillips tried to broker a deal: He would go with the pirates as they escaped aboard the Alabama‘s lifeboat, then be set free at the same time his crew released the captured pirate. But things didn’t go as planned: Once Phillips got into the lifeboat with the pirates, the fourth Somali broke free, jumped overboard and got in the boat with them. Phillips, now a hostage, spent the next five days in the sweltering fiberglass lifeboat – while his wife Andrea, an ER nurse, and his two children, Daniel and Mariah, held a vigil in at home in Underhill, Vt.
At one point, Phillips tried to escape, jumping out of the lifeboat and swimming towards the USS Bainbridge, a Navy warship now on the scene. “That sounds like something Richie would do,” says friend and fellow captain, James Staples. “It shows he was still thinking, still on top of his game, still being resourceful.” But the pirates caught him, dragged him back and tied him up. Not much later, a military plane flew over the Bainbridge in the dead of night, and a squad of Navy SEALs parachuted into the Indian Ocean. Once aboard the U.S. warship, three snipers took positions on the ship’s fantail and trained their night-vision scopes on the tiny lifeboat below.
Inside the lifeboat, say Navy negotiators, the pirates were becoming agitated. One of them came aboard the Bainbridge to be treated for an injury, and told officials his fellow pirates were prepared to kill Phillips. A Navy source told PEOPLE that the pirates – jittery from a lack of sleep, food and water – were possibly also in withdrawal from khat, an addictive leaf chewed by many Somalis. Believing Capt. Phillips was in imminent danger, Navy officials looked for any way to end the stalemate. Says the Navy source, “We ran out of options.”
They got their chance when the pirates briefly became visible through the hatches of the lifeboat. The three snipers fired, and all three pirates were killed with a single shot to the head. Phillips, safe and sound, was brought aboard the Bainbridge, given a shower and change of clothes – and a chance to call his wife. “Words cannot explain the courageousness of what Richie did,” says James Staples. “Ninety-eight percent of time nothing happens on this job. It’s the other two percent that shows the make of the man. And Richie put himself in harm’s way for the safety of his crew.”
• Reporting by MARK DAGOSTINO, SUSAN KEATING and NICK WADHAMS
For more on the pirate attack, including details of the ordeal endured by the American seamen’s families back home, pick up the latest PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday