When the Long Island-owned ship Liberty Sun was attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia on Tuesday, it was traveling a dangerous route, but one its company's vessels had made safely hundreds of times.
Liberty Maritime Corp., based in Lake Success, is one of the largest American shippers of humanitarian food aid, delivering more than a million pounds of bulk agricultural products annually to Africa and Asia, and navigating pirate-infested waters every day to do so.
"They are very definitely one of the major players in the industry," said Gloria Tosi, a Washington lobbyist who represents a consortium of shipping companies that distribute food aid, including Liberty.
"They are in that part of the world all the time," she said, adding that the recent attacks on the Sun and the Maersk Alabama "have sent shock waves all over the place in the industry."
On Tuesday, the Liberty Sun was en route to Mombasa, Kenya, carrying 27,000 metric tons of maize meal - a corn-soy blend - and wheat flower, yellow peas and lentils destined for Kenya, Somalia and southern Sudan, a UN World Food Programme spokesman said. Another 3,000 pounds was headed for Uganda via nongovernmental organizations.
The Liberty Sun is expected to arrive in Mombasa early this morning.
It began its journey in Houston, crossed the Atlantic Ocean and entered the Red Sea through the Suez Canal, officials said. After dropping off food in Port Sudan, it rounded the Horn of Africa and launched into a section of the Indian Ocean that has seen increased pirate attacks this year, Navy officials told The Associated Press.
A source familiar with the company said Liberty Maritime ships had been attacked before in the Indian Ocean, though never boarded.
Liberty Maritime president Philip Shapiro did not return calls. A Manhattan public relations firm hired by the company declined to comment Wednesday.
Peter Smerdon, a UN World Food Programme spokesman in Nairobi, said Somali pirates were getting bolder and more difficult to police. "They're hitting further and further afield," Smerdon said.
Liberty Maritime was founded in 1988 by Shapiro, who was then an attorney for shipping company Apex Marine. With financial backing from a Portland, Ore., steel manufacturer, Schnitzer, Shapiro bought five bulk carrying ships from Apex, news reports then say, and began bidding for contracts from the U.S. Food for Peace program, which must use U.S.-flagged ships for 75 percent of its shipments.
Since then, the company says it has shipped 28 million pounds of food aid to 40 countries on about 500 voyages. According to the Web site of USAID, which administers the Food for Peace program, in the past six months, Liberty has been awarded contracts to ship thousands of metric tons of food aid, including sorghum, wheat, vegetable oil and lentils, to destinations including Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan.
The company has tried to diversify, buying in 2005 a car and truck carrier vessel and making a failed bid last year to buy a competitor, International Shipholding Corp.
Marco Cannistraro, communications director for the Maritime Engineers' Beneficial Association, a union that has members on the Liberty Sun, said the ships are a "bare-bones operation" not well-equipped to deal with a pirate attack. "A lot of this is about money," he said. "We'd love to have an armed guard to go through these dangerous waters, but we have to deal with what's realistic considering the economics."