For five days in April 2009, the world was glued to their TV screens as Captain Richard Phillips became the center of an extraordinary international drama when he was captured by Somali pirates who hijacked his ship, the first hijacking of a U.S. ship in more than 200 years.
The hostage drama began on Wednesday, April 8th when a small band of pirates swung grappling hooks and climbed ropes from their skiff onto the Maersk Alabama, a container ship ferrying food aid to East Africa. Firing into the air as they leapt aboard the ship, many of the crew members scrambled into a designated safe room aboard the vessel.
On the bridge, the pirates held four sailors at gunpoint, but the crew of 20 outnumbered the four attackers. They managed to wound the apparent leader of the pirates in the hand with an ice pick and regain control. The crew demanded the other pirates leave the ship, but the pirates had scuttled their own small boat. They demanded an escape boat, fuel and food.
To protect his crew, Captain Phillips made a conscious decision to put himself directly in harm's way, knowing full well that he might pay the ultimate price for his decision. Amid the standoff, he offered himself as a hostage.
Once the pirates settled into one of the ship's covered lifeboats, the crew attempted to trade the pirate they had captured for Captain Phillips. After they released their captive, the pirates refused to honor the agreement and fled with nine days of food rations and Captain Phillips. Held hostage as a human shield in a small lifeboat with three pirates, he had little to hope for or cling to — except the knowledge that he had done absolutely everything he could to save the lives of the 20 sailors aboard his ship.
The U.S. Navy responded to the scene, and negotiations were ongoing between the pirates and the captain of the USS Bainbridge. On Friday April 10th, Captain Phillips jumped out of the lifeboat and managed to swim a few yards toward the nearby destroyer, but the pirates went in after him and managed to haul him back in. The standoff dragged on until April 12th, when Navy SEAL snipers saw one of the pirates aim his AK-47 machine gun at Capt. Richard Phillips's back and concluded he was in “imminent danger.”
President Barack Obama, who spoke with Captain Phillips by phone after he was freed, said, "I share the country's admiration for the bravery of Captain Phillips and his selfless concern for his crew. His courage is a model for all Americans."
Captain Richard Phillips is the author of A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea, about his experience and his remarkable rescue. This dramatic story was also transformed into an Academy-Award and Golden-Globe nominated film, Captain Phillips, which hit the big screens in fall of 2013.
Captain Phillips is a graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy a member of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots Union, and a licensed American merchant mariner. He became Captain of the MV Maersk Alabama in 2009. Captain Phillips married Andrea Coggio in 1987. They have two children, Mariah and Danny and reside in Underhill, Vermont.