Capt. Wren Thomas and the crew aboard the C-Retriever were helpless, barricaded inside the ship’s tank room, as armed pirates cut through the steel door with an angle grinder.
Once a hole formed in the door, he and his chief engineer sprayed water at the Nigerian hijacker wielding the electric power tool, shocking him – and angering the pirates.
Soon, 7.62-mm bullets from an AK-47 were spraying in, ricocheting off the walls, and sending the crew scrambling for cover. The jig was up, and Thomas knew it. He surrendered, and opened the door.
“The pirates had two ways to get to us, either through the watertight door dividing the engine room or the emergency escape hatch in the z-drive room,” Thomas explained. “It was easier and more convenient for them to cut through the door to the engine room. When the pirates came through, they were armed with AK-47s and an M-60.”
The dramatic confrontation, described by Thomas in an exclusive interview with Rob Almeida of the maritime and offshore industry news site gCaptain.com, came on Oct. 23, 2013 and marked the beginning of an 18-day ordeal. The pirates struck about 60 miles off the Nigerian coast in the Gulf of Guinea, as the ship sailed toward an offshore oil field with fresh supplies.
Thomas and the engineer were immediately whisked off the ship in a speedboat and taken ashore, he said. They were held for weeks in a hidden camp in a swamp just off the beach as their tormentors negotiated through various parties with Edison Chouest Offshore, the Louisiana company that owns the ship and employed the men.
“They treated us like animals,” said Thomas, a former Marine who grew up in Illinois. “It’s about as close as a person could get to being a POW.”
The pirates smoked crack, fought with one another and vented their anger and paranoia on their hostages, Thomas said in his interview. The men were fed a packet of ramen noodles every other day – unless negotiations with the ship’s owners went poorly. In those cases, the hostages went hungry.
“I found my training as a Marine kicked in and provided me with survival skills,” he said. “I knew not to piss off a Nigerian. Or worse, a Nigerian pirate, or even worse a Nigerian pirate on drugs.”
Eventually, Thomas said, he and the engineer were taken to another location and handed over to a tribal chief who was acting on behalf of Edison Chouest.
Neither Edison Chouest nor the U.S. State Department has ever confirmed that a ransom was paid.