WASHINGTON – U.S. warships and helicopters stalked a lifeboat holding an American sea captain and his four Somali captors Sunday, while his crew briefed FBI agents about how they fought off the pirates who boarded their ship.
Nineteen American sailors guarded by U.S. Navy Seals reached safe harbor in Kenya's northeast port of Mombasa on Saturday night, exhilarated by freedom but mourning the absence of Capt. Richard Phillips, who sacrificed himself as a hostage to save them.
"He saved our lives!" second mate Ken Quinn, of Bradenton, Florida, declared from the ship deck. "He's a hero."
ATM Reza, a crew member who said he was first to see the pirates board the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama on Wednesday. described how the bandits "came on with hooks and ropes and were firing in the air."
He was responding to a throng of reporters shouting questions from shore about the ordeal that began with Somali pirates hauling themselves up from a small boat bobbing on the surface of the Indian Ocean far below.
As the pirates shot in the air, Phillips, 53, of Underhill, Vermont, told his crew to lock themselves in a cabin and surrendered himself to safeguard his men, crew members said.
Phillips was still held hostage in an enclosed lifeboat Sunday by four pirates being closely watched by U.S. warships and a helicopter in an increasingly tense standoff. The lifeboat is out of fuel and drifting.
A Pentagon spokesman said Saturday night that negotiations to free Phillips were continuing. Talks began Thursday with the captain of the USS Bainbridge talking to the pirates under instruction from FBI hostage negotiators on board the U.S. destroyer.
But The New York Times reported the talks broke down Saturday, quoting Somali officials as blaming a U.S. insistence that the pirates must be arrested. It was not immediately possible to verify that report.
It was not clear where the lifeboat was on Sunday. A pirate who says he is associated with the gang holding Phillips, Ahmed Mohamed Nur, told The Associated Press that the pirates say "helicopters continue to fly over their heads in the daylight and in the night they are under the focus of a spotlight from a warship."
But Nur said satellite phone calls with the pirates had not established the position of the boat: "We do not know where exactly the boat is."
He spoke by satellite phone from Harardhere, a port and pirate stronghold where a fisherman said helicopters flew over the town Sunday morning and a warship was looming on the horizon. The fisherman, Abdi Sheikh Muse, said that could be an indication the lifeboat may be near to shore.
The U.S. Navy has assumed the pirates would try to get their hostage to shore, where they can hide him on Somalia's lawless soil and be in a stronger position to negotiate a ransom.
Three U.S. warships were within easy reach of the lifeboat on Saturday, but fears of endangering Phillips' life limit their ability to use their overwhelming firepower.
On Friday, the French navy freed a sailboat seized off Somalia last week by other pirates, but one of the five hostages was killed.
Early Saturday, the pirates holding Phillips in the lifeboat fired a few shots at a small U.S. Navy vessel that had approached, a U.S. military official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The official said the U.S. sailors did not return fire, the Navy vessel turned away and no one was hurt. He said the vessel had not been attempting a rescue. The pirates are believed armed with pistols and AK-47 assault rifles.
Phillips jumped out of the lifeboat Friday and tried to swim for his freedom but was recaptured when a pirate fired an automatic weapon at or near him, according to U.S. Defense Department officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk about the unfolding operations.
In Mombasa, the Alabama crew described how they overpowered the pirates.
Reza, a father of one from Hartford, Connecticut, said that after the pirates boarded, he had led one to the engine room where he stabbed him in the hand with an ice pick and tied him up. Other sailors corroborated that story.
The crew have told family members by phone that they took one pirate hostage before giving him up in the hope their captain would be released. Instead, the Somalis fled with Phillips to the lifeboat.
Some of the Alabama's crew cheered and cracked jokes as they arrived in Mombasa, others peered warily over the edge of their 17,000-ton cargo ship that had been transporting food aid.
With Navy SEALs standing guard, one sailor told off the mass of journalists, 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, 41, of New York City, described the whole experience as a "nightmare" and said the first thing he will do back home is go to church.
Maersk President John Reinhart said from Norfolk, Virginia, that the ship was still a crime scene and the crewmen could not leave until the FBI investigates the attack. He said crew members have been provided phones so they can stay in touch with family members.
"When I spoke to the crew, they won't consider it done when they board a plane and come home," Reinhart said. "They won't consider it done until the captain is back, nor will we."
Other bandits, among hundreds who have made the Gulf of Aden the world's most dangerous waterway, seized an Italian tugboat off Somalia's north coast Saturday as it was pulling barges, said Shona Lowe, a spokeswoman at NATO's Northwood maritime command center outside London.
The Foreign Ministry in Rome confirmed 10 of the 16 crew members are 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," said Graeme Gibbon-Brooks, founder of Dryad Maritime Intelligence Ltd.
In Phillips' hometown, the Rev. Charles Danielson of the St. Thomas Church said the congregation would continue to pray for Phillips and his family, who are members, and he would encourage "people to find hope in the triumph of good over evil."
Reinhart said he spoke with Phillips' wife, Andrea, who is surrounded by family and two company employees who were sent to support her.
"She's a brave woman," Reinhart said. "And she has one favor to ask: 'Do what you have to do to bring Richard home safely.' That means don't make a mistake, folks. We have to be perfect in our execution."