MOMBASA, Kenya - Nineteen American sailors who escaped apirate hijacking off the Horn of Africa reached safe harbor onSaturday, exhilarated by freedom but mourning the absence of thecaptain they hailed for sacrificing his freedom to save them.
With a throng of reporters shouting questions from shore, thecrew of the Maersk Alabama described an ordeal that began withSomali pirates hauling themselves onto the deck from a small boatbobbing on the surface of the Indian Ocean far below.
"They came from the stern of the ship and came on with hooksand ropes and were firing in the air when they got on board," saidATM Reza, a crew member who said he was the first to see thepirates board Wednesday.
As the pirates shot in the air, Capt. Richard Phillips, 53, ofUnderhill, Vermont, told his crew to lock themselves in a cabin andsurrendered himself to safeguard his men, crew members said.Phillips was still held hostage in an enclosed lifeboat Saturday byfour pirates being closely watched by U.S. warships in anincreasingly tense standoff. A Pentagon spokesman said negotiationswere ongoing.
"He saved our lives!" second mate Ken Quinn, of Bradenton,Florida, declared from the ship as it docked in the resort and portcity of Mombasa. "He's a hero."
Reza, a father of one from Hartford, Connecticut, said that hehad led one of the pirates to the engine room, where he stabbed himin the hand with an ice pick and tied him up. Other sailorscorroborated that story.
The crew did not elaborate Saturday but have told family membersby phone that they took one pirate hostage before giving him up inthe unfulfilled hope their captain would be released. Instead, theSomalis fled with Phillips to the lifeboat.
Some of the Alabama's crew cheered and cracked jokes as theyarrived in Mombasa, others peered warily over the edge of their17,000-ton cargo ship.
With Navy Seals standing guard, one sailor told off the mass ofjournalists, saying: "Don't disrespect these men like that.They've got a man out on a lifeboat dying so we can live."
Crewman William Rios described the whole experience as a"nightmare" and said the first thing he will do back home in NewYork is pray. "I'm going to church," he said, specifying St. Johnthe Baptist Church in New York City.
Quinn told reporters the experience was "terrifying andexciting at the same time." Asked what he thought of the pirateswho seized the boat, Quinn said: "They're just hungry."
Maersk President John Reinhart said from Norfolk, Virginia thatthe ship was still a crime scene and the crewmen could not leaveuntil the FBI investigates the attack. He said crew members havebeen provided phones so they can stay in touch with family members.
"When I spoke to the crew, they won't consider it done whenthey board a plane and come home," Reinhart said. "They won'tconsider it done until the captain is back, nor will we."
Negotiations with the pirates were continuing on Saturday,Pentagon spokesman Maj. Stewart Upton said. But the Pentagon willnot comment on any aspect of the negotiations, including who isleading them.
Other bandits, among the hundreds who have made the Gulf of Adenthe world's most dangerous waterway, seized an Italian tugboat offSomalia's north coast Saturday as it was pulling barges, said ShonaLowe, a spokeswoman at NATO's Northwood maritime command centeroutside London.
The Foreign Ministry in Rome confirmed 10 of the 16 crew membersare Italian. The others are five Romanians and a Croatian,according to Micoperi, the Italian company that owns the ship.
A piracy expert said the two hijackings did not appear related.
"This is just the Somali pirate machine in full flow," saidGraeme Gibbon-Brooks, founder of Dryad Maritime Intelligence Ltd.
Phillips jumped out of the lifeboat Friday and tried to swim forhis freedom but was recaptured when a pirate fired an automaticweapon at or near him, according to U.S. Defense Departmentofficials speaking on condition of anonymity because they are notauthorized to talk about the sensitive, unfolding operations.
"We believe that Capt. Phillips will survive this situation,"said Capt. Joseph Murphy, father of second-in-command Shane Murphy."We know he will survive because he will never give up."
A U.S. military official said that early Saturday the pirates inthe lifeboat believed to be armed with pistols and AK-47s fired afew shots at a small Navy vessel that had approached, possibly toconduct reconnaissance. No one was hurt and the Navy vessel turnedaway, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity becausehe was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The U.S. sailors did not return fire, he said. The U.S. had notapproached in a rescue attempt, he said.
The captain of the warship watching the lifeboat has beengetting direction from FBI hostage negotiators and talks have takenplace with the pirates, U.S. officials said.
In Underhill, two young girls set up a lemonade stand with asign saying "Come home safe Capt. Phillips."
Rev. Charles Danielson of the St. Thomas Church said thecongregation would continue to pray for Phillips and his family,who are members, and he would encourage "people to find hope inthe triumph of good over evil."
Reinhart said he spoke with Phillips' wife, Andrea, who issurrounded by family and two company employees who were sent tosupport her.
"She's a brave woman," Reinhart said. "And she has one favorto ask: 'Do what you have to do to bring Richard home safely.' Thatmeans don't make a mistake, folks. We have to be perfect in ourexecution."
The USS Bainbridge was joined Friday by the USS Halyburton,which has helicopters, and the huge, amphibious USS Boxer wasexpected soon after, the defense officials said. The Boxer, theflagship of a multination anti-piracy task force, resembles a smallaircraft carrier. It has a crew of more than 1,000, a mobilehospital, missile launchers and about two dozen helicopters andattack planes.
On Friday, the French navy freed a sailboat seized off Somalialast week by other pirates, but one of the hostages was killed.
The vice president of the Philippines, the nation with thelargest number of sailors held captive by Somali pirates, appealedfor the safety of hostages to be ensured in the standoff.
"We hope that before launching any tactical action against thepirates, the welfare of every hostage is guaranteed and ensured,"said Vice President Noli de Castro.
Meanwhile, France's defense minister promised an autopsy andinvestigation into the death of a hostage killed during a commandooperation, which freed four other captives and was prompted bythreats the passengers would be executed. Two pirates also werekilled. Three pirates were captured and are to be brought to Francefor criminal proceedings.
Somali pirates are holding about a dozen ships with more than200 crew members, according to the Malaysia-based InternationalMaritime Bureau, a piracy watchdog group. The bureau lists 66attacks since January, not including the Alabama or the Italianship seized Saturday.