US crew tells of harrowing pirate showdown

The Associated Press ~ staff The News
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OXON HILL, Md. - "If I die I'm going to take someone else with me," one seaman vowed, grabbing a knife as alarms pierced the Maersk Alabama and pirates with assault weapons clambered aboard.
Back home safe with their families Thursday, the cargo ship's crew described a harrowing contest of wits and mismatched weapons for control of the vessel.
The crew cut power. One bandit was led to the dark engine room, where two mariners struggled to tie him up and one stabbed him.
The crew prevailed, at the cost of seeing their skipper taken hostage on a lifeboat for five days. Freed by Navy SEAL marksmen who killed his captors, Capt. Richard Phillips now has his own homecoming ahead.
A second chartered flight was ready to fly Phillips home to his family in Vermont, probably Friday.
"I'm just so relieved and overwhelmed that it's over," said third engineer John Cronan of Merion, Pa. "I'm home now. The greatest country in the world."
A chartered flight delivered the men into the arms of their exuberant families early Thursday. Everyone was spirited off to luxurious quarters outside Washington to celebrate and recuperate.
The setting at Gaylord National Resort was a far cry from the crushing heat, shouts and fears that enveloped the ship off the African coast when pirates made it aboard on their third try.
Electrician John White of Lake Helen, Fla., was having coffee in the galley before breakfast when the alarms went off and he was told to secure two doors and hide.
"The ship was totally dark," he said. "It was 130 degrees in the place. We were hiding for 12 hours. I laid down on the floor to keep from passing out."
Crewman A.T.M. "Zahid" Reza, of West Hartford, Conn., said he and his mates led the pirate leader, Abdul, to the darkened engine room.
"I held him, I tied his hands and tied his legs," said Reza, originally from Bangladesh. I told him, 'You're a Muslim and I'm a Muslim.'
"He was fighting me. There was a lot of yelling, shouting and screaming. I was attempting to kill him. He was scared. He said he was planning to ask for $3 million.
During the noisy struggle, Reza said, he stabbed the pirate in the hand.
That episode probably saved the bandit's life. Days later, his wound festering, he went on the destroyer USS Bainbridge to get his hand treated and to negotiate over Phillips' fate. While he was aboard the destroyer, U.S. snipers shot and killed the three pirates still on the lifeboat, freeing the Maersk Alabama captain unharmed.
Crewman Miguel Ruiz of New York City said that when the pirates boarded the ship he grabbed a flashlight and a knife, went to a secure area and thought, "If I die I'm going to take someone else with me."
Phillips tried to keep his men calm as they gathered in designated parts of the ship. "We got orders to do nothing," Ruiz said.
Yet several crewmen had the wounded pirate bound up. They gave him water and food. "We are merchant marines," Ruiz said. "We are not killers."
He recalled an exchange with one of the pirates, who were aged 17 to 19: "I said to him, why do you do that?" The pirate, Ruiz said, responded: "We've got 20 million people in Somalia who are poor, that don't have education. We don't have no food."
Added seaman William Rios, also from New York, "We had control of the ship."
The seamen told their story in bits and pieces Thursday, in the company of loved ones who had cheered their homecoming after midnight on a wet, cold tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base. They found a wee-hours feast of beef, lobster risotto, wine and beer waiting for them at the resort.
Phillips' brinkmanship with the bandits had unfolded out of the crew's sight. But at some point, the crew said, the skipper agreed to surrender himself in exchange for the safety of his men and the release of his ship.
When the men heard a coded announcement, they came out of their secure areas and found four pirates on the deck with their guns.
"They couldn't get off the ship without our help," White said. "They got into a boat to leave. They needed our help but unfortunately they snagged the captain."
The stand off continued from there, the destroyer arriving on the scene and the Maersk Alabama sailing on to Kenya with its cargo of relief supplies.
On Sunday, snipers on the destroyer took their three shots at the three remaining pirates, killing them.
Maersk Alabama crewmen who addressed the question said they planned to go back to sea. They and their families asked the U.S. and other naval powers to make their work safer.
"Something needs to be done to protect the crews," said Robert Vaughan of Dallas, a brother of third mate Colin Wright. Still, he said of his brother, "He'll be back out there. That's his job."
Second mate Ken Quinn of Bradenton, Fla., acknowledged he'll worry when sailing pirate-infested waters again. "It would be good to be armed," he said, "but if we start shooting at them, they might start killing more seamen."
Myra Ruiz, Miguel's wife, recalled how she heard about the attack on the ship.
"My daughter answered the phone," she said through a translator. "She wasn't talking, but her eyes were full of tears. I felt nervous and couldn't control myself.
"We felt very happy" when they found out that he had been freed, she said.
Phillips sailed to Kenya on the destroyer, which diverted to help another U.S. ship harassed by pirates.
A plane carrying Phillips was expected to arrive at Vermont's Burlington International Airport late Friday, said George Bacigalupo, general manager of Atlantic Aviation at the airport.

Organizations: Gaylord National Resort, Andrews Air Force Base, Burlington International Airport

Geographic location: U.S., Vermont, OXON HILL Merion Washington New York City Lake Helen West Hartford, Conn. Bangladesh Kenya Somalia Dallas Bradenton, Fla.

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