Captain is faulted in pirate attack

4 contend Phillips ignored warnings of increased risk

Captain Richard Phillips said he could not answer every ‘spurious accusation’ in the April hijacking incident. Captain Richard Phillips said he could not answer every ‘spurious accusation’ in the April hijacking incident.
By John Curran
Associated Press / December 3, 2009

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Richard Phillips, the ship captain toasted as a hero after he was taken captive by Somali pirates, ignored repeated warnings last spring to keep his freighter at least 600 miles off the African coast because of the heightened risk of attack, some members of his crew now say.

Records obtained by The Associated Press show that maritime safety groups issued at least seven such warnings in the days before outlaws boarded the Maersk Alabama in the Gulf of Aden, about 380 miles offshore.

A piracy specialist and the captain’s second-in-command say Phillips had the prerogative to heed the warnings. But some crew members - including the chief engineer, the helmsman, and the navigator - say he was negligent not to change course after learning of pirate activity.

“If you go to the grocery store and eight people get mugged on that street, wouldn’t you go a different way?’’ asked the ship’s navigator, Ken Quinn, of Tampa.

Sailing beyond the 600-mile threshold would have added more than a day to the Alabama’s voyage to Mombasa, Kenya, and used extra fuel, according to the ship’s previous captain, who said Phillips had years of experience sailing in those waters.

Four of the 20 crew members told the AP that they blame Phillips for the hijacking. “He caused this, and we all know it,’’ said chief engineer Mike Perry of Riverview, Fla. “All the Alabama crew knows about it.’’

Reached by telephone at his home in Underhill, Vt., Phillips said he could not answer every “spurious accusation’’ and that he expected such criticism. “But I don’t wish to say anything. I want you to report that I had no comment,’’ he said.

One of the crew members who blame Phillips is part of a lawsuit filed against Maersk Line Ltd. alleging the company was negligent in sending the ship into treacherous waters without more protection. The other members are not involved in any legal action related to the hijacking. A separate complaint has also been filed against Phillips with the US Coast Guard.

Captain Shane Murphy of Plymouth, who was second-in-command during the siege, defended Phillips. “If he was warned to stay off a certain distance and he stayed closer, I’m sure he thought he had a reason for doing it and felt like he was justified in it,’’ Murphy said.

Maersk Line officials would not comment on the advisories or on Phillips’ handling of them, citing the pending legal cases. Company spokesman Kevin Speers would say only that the Maersk Alabama operated in “high-risk waters quite frequently, and that is part of the considerations that we take in putting together vessel security plans.’’

SecureWest International, a maritime security organization that issued several of the advisories, would not respond to requests for comment. The AP obtained copies of the advisories from a fifth crew member who did not want to be interviewed on the record.