This photo released by the U.S. Navy shows Maersk Alabama Capt. Richard Phillips (right) standing alongside Cmdr. Frank Castellano, commanding officer of the USS Bainbridge after being rescued by U.S. Naval Forces off the coast of Somalia on Sunday.
This photo released by the U.S. Navy shows Maersk Alabama Capt. Richard Phillips (right) standing alongside Cmdr. Frank Castellano, commanding officer of the USS Bainbridge after being rescued by U.S. Naval Forces off the coast of Somalia on Sunday. AP/U.S. Navy
The U.S. Navy rescued American cargo ship Capt. Richard Phillips from Somali pirates in a daring operation on Sunday. Three of his captors are now dead, and a fourth is in U.S. military custody after sharpshooters on the USS Bainbridge were able to get clear shots of the three men holding Phillips hostage.
Navy officials said that President Obama had given permission Saturday to move in militarily if at any time military officials felt the 53-year-old Philips was in imminent danger. And that seemed to happen on Sunday. That's when Navy snipers aboard the USS Bainbridge spotted the pirates pointing an AK-47 at Phillips' back. They were concerned that they were about to shoot the American captain — so they took out the Somalis.
Vice Adm. William Gortney, the commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, said U.S. military snipers opened fire just moments after an on-scene commander determined that Phillips' life might well be in "imminent danger."
The U.S. sharpshooters aboard the Bainbridge were only about 100 feet away when they took their shots. At the time, the Bainbridge was towing the lifeboat, which had run out of fuel several days ago. Phillips was just feet from the pirates when the snipers opened fire.
The three pirates on board the lifeboat were killed. Phillips was pulled from the lifeboat and transported to the Bainbridge. It was there that sailors delivered a note to him from his wife that read: "Your family is saving a chocolate Easter egg for you, unless your son eats it first." Gortney asked his wife to make sure to save the egg for her husband.
A photograph, showing Phillips shaking hands with the commanding officer of the Bainbridge, showed that the cargo captain was healthy and unhurt from his ordeal.
The dramatic shootout took place at the end of four harrowing days of negotiations and brinksmanship with a ragtag group of Somali pirates who had originally set out to hijack the Maersk Alabama — a U.S.-flagged ship full of African relief aid — hoping for a hefty ransom. Instead of a compliant crew, however, they found a group of Americans who not only refused to give up their vessel but actually at one point took one of the pirates hostage. Crew members say they tried to trade the pirate for their captain, but the pirates reneged on the deal. The pirates then took Phillips off the ship and into a covered lifeboat, demanding a $2 million ransom for his safe return.
A little more than a day later, FBI negotiators and U.S. Navy were on the scene. They began by boarding the Maersk Alabama and taking the ship and its crew to Mombasa. That left Phillips and the four pirates bobbed in the Indian Ocean in a small, 18-foot covered lifeboat. There was food and water on the boat, and a radio, which the U.S. Navy used to communicate with the pirates and Phillips himself.
On Friday, officials say Phillips tried to escape and dove into water; the pirates shot at him and then fished him out of the ocean. He was unhurt and negotiations continued.
Gortney said the Navy had every intention of allowing the talks to work toward a nonviolent end. But it became increasingly clear that Phillips' life was hanging in the balance, he said. Tensions were rising. The pirates had threatened to kill Phillips if the ransom wasn't paid. Officials didn't want to take any chances, so as tempers flared and it appeared they had a clear shot at the three pirates, they took advantage of the situation.
A fourth pirate was on board the Bainbridge negotiating Phillips' release when the shooting occurred. He is now in custody. The Justice Department will decide whether to prosecute him in the U.S.
Both the lifeboat and the Maersk Alabama are considered crime scenes. The FBI is talking to the crew of the ship in Mombasa now to start gathering evidence for a criminal trial.
Phillips could be back with his family in Vermont as early as Tuesday.