Rescued captain writes book about his hostage ordeal

Richard Phillips, who was captured by Somali pirates last year, has scheduled a tour to promote his book, which will be released on Tuesday. Richard Phillips, who was captured by Somali pirates last year, has scheduled a tour to promote his book, which will be released on Tuesday.
By John Curran
Associated Press / April 1, 2010

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MONTPELIER — The cargo ship captain who spent five days as a hostage of Somali pirates says in a new book it was a high-seas double-cross that led to his brutal ordeal in a sweltering lifeboat.

Richard Phillips says that one of the AK-47-wielding pirates was grabbed by the crew of the Maersk Alabama last year, but the crew agreed to release him if the pirates released their captive, Phillips.

Bad idea, he says now. His crew gave up the pirate, but the other pirates reneged on the swap and kept Phillips.

“Don’t make deals with pirates,’’ Phillips writes in “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea.’’ “We should have never made the exchange.’’

Phillips calls that one of three mistakes he made in the encounter, which saw him beaten, tied up, and threatened before he was rescued days later by the Navy.

The other mistakes: staying too long on the bridge as the pirates shot their way aboard and not dropping a “man overboard’’ boat occupied by the pirates off the side of the ship when he had the chance.

Phillips, 55, who lives in Underhill, Vt., was hailed as a hero after crewmembers and his family said he volunteered himself as a hostage to get the hijackers off the ship.

The 286-page book is being released Tuesday, two days before the anniversary of the attack. Ghostwritten by Stephan Talty, it breaks little new ground but offers a compelling blow-by-blow narrative of the aborted hijacking, beginning with a radioed warning, “Somali pirate, Somali pirate, coming to get you,’’ from the gunmen’s skiff as they chased down the Maersk Alabama.

The cargo ship’s crew hid belowdecks once the pirates boarded “in a giant life-and-death game of hide-and-seek,’’ according to Phillips, then tricked the pirates into believing the ship’s satellite radio was broken, and faked a VHF radio transmission to make them believe the Navy was on the way before it was.

Once the plan was hatched to send the pirates off in a lifeboat, he gave them $30,000 in cash from a ship safe. The pirates told him they thought he might fetch a $2 million ransom — if they could get him back to land.

The book makes only passing mention of piracy warnings received by the ship before the April 8 attack, which some crew members now say could have been avoided entirely if Phillips had kept the freighter at least 600 miles off the African coast, as the advisories suggested.

The lifeboat saga was five days of steamy isolation in which he was held at gunpoint.

The day before his rescue, Phillips’s mental condition had deteriorated, and being forced to relieve himself in his pants — as his captors laughed — left him wanting to die.

“I wanted the Navy to open up on the lifeboat with that .50-caliber gun and just end everything,’’ he writes. “My frustration boiled over and I was ready for the end.’’

When the end finally did come, it was from the barrels of Navy guns: Sharpshooters on the fantail of the USS Bainbridge picked off the three pirates in a stunning nighttime operation, leaving Phillips untouched.

Phillips didn’t realize what was going on as the sound of gunshots rocked the lifeboat.

“I thought the pirates were shooting one another, and I was caught in the crossfire. They’d been arguing and it had escalated to gunfire. And now, after days of heat, punishment, and threats, there was complete silence.

“All of a sudden I heard a voice. A male American voice. ‘Are you OK?’ it said.’’

Once aboard the USS Bainbridge, Phillips called his wife to tell her he was safe.

“Is your husband home?’’ he said, repeating a running joke between them.

“No,’’ she replied.

“Good. I’ll be right over,’’ he told her.

But the rescue didn’t end his trauma. For three days aboard the Bainbridge, he suffered through sudden crying jags, an aftereffect of the psychological strain of what he’d been through: “Waves of sadness and grief washed over me. And I let them. It was the strangest feeling.’’

Phillips, who declined interview requests, has scheduled a nationwide book tour and sold his story rights to Columbia Pictures.

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