Saturday, 2:15 PM
Two Mass. Maritime graduates led hijacked ship
By Peter Schworm and and Milton Valencia, Globe Staff
A crew commanded by two graduates of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy regained control of a cargo ship seized by a small band of armed Somali pirates today, thwarting the first attack on a US-flagged vessel in recent memory.
The bold maneuver reportedly forced a tense standoff with the pirates, who fled the vessel in a lifeboat with the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips, a 53-year-old from Underhill, Vt., and a 1979 graduate of the Bourne college. The attack marked the most dramatic example to date of the mounting threat the pirates pose to the international shipping trade in the volatile waters off the Horn of Africa.
Relatives of Phillips and of Shane Murphy of Seekonk, 33, a 2001 graduate and the ship’s chief officer, anxiously monitored the often murky news reports throughout the day. They described the two men as dedicated seamen who understood the danger of encountering armed attackers and were fiercely protective of their crews.
Phillips, a 53-year-old who grew up in Winchester and who has two college-aged children, has worked as a ship’s officer for more than two decades and often sailed to the Middle East, said his sister-in-law, Lea Coggio, who was anxiously monitoring developments late yesterday with her sister and Phillips’ wife, Andrea.
‘‘This has been incredibly hard on her,’’ she said. ‘‘But we are hoping for the best.’’
Phillips’ capture left Murphy in command of the Maersk Alabama, a 17,000-ton cargo ship bound for Kenya to deliver humanitarian aid. Murphy’s father, Mass. Maritime professor Joseph Murphy, said today that the crew is apparently safe after somehow wresting control of the vessel from at least four well-armed attackers.
‘‘They are all Boston Irish kids, and they are tough,’’ Murphy said of the crew, his voice wavering with emotion. ‘‘They believe what they believe, and did what they had to do.’’
Shane Murphy, who lives in Seekonk with his wife Serena and two young boys, called his wife at 10 a.m. today to tell her the pirates had taken over the ship and seized Phillips, the family said.
Serena Murphy, 31, said in an interview at her home tonight that her husband managed to phone her several times during the ordeal, assuring her that the pirates seemed willing to negotiate and that he would be safe.
‘‘He’s a tough guy, and he said to me ’I will be able to make it back to my boys no matter what,’ ’’ she said.
Although he had never faced a pirate attack, his wife said, he was keenly aware of the risk in that part of the world.
‘‘He would hear it on the radio, of other ships being captured,’’ she said. ‘‘It was just a matter of time before it would be his ship.’’
With the pirates stranded in a small craft hundreds of miles from land, and several US Navy ships rushing to the scene, Joseph Murphy said he was hopeful Phillips would escape unharmed.
CNN reported that the attackers were holding Phillips for ransom after apparently breaking a deal to exchange him for a captured pirate.
"’We had one of their hostages, we had a pirate,’’ Ken Quinn, the second mate, told the cable network by phone from the ship. ‘‘We took him for 12 hours. We tied him up. We returned him. But they didn’t return the captain.’’
The elder Murphy, who teaches a class in anti-piracy techniques at the 1,000-student academy, said it was remarkable for a unarmed merchant crew to retake a vessel from heavily armed mercenaries.
‘‘From what I understand, they took the ship back with sheer force,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s just incredible. They are well drilled and very determined.’’
The stunning scenario cast a spotlight on the Bourne college, which recently had received national attention for its innovative anti-piracy course that included firearms training for the first time in the school’s history.
Just three weeks ago, between voyages to the Middle East, Shane Murphy had visited his father’s anti-piracy class at the academy. In an unflinchingly lecture, he described the escalating threat of pirates in the lawless waters off the coast of Somalia and told cadets the danger was unlikely to subside soon.
Pirates boarded the ship nearly 300 miles off the coast of Somalia after a chase that lasted more than three hours, Joseph Murphy said. The crew of the 17,000-ton vessel tried to outrun and elude the pirates but were eventually caught and taken by force at about 7:30 a.m.
‘‘There was a massive amount of gunfire,’’ said Murphy, who had spoken with officials from the ship’s owner. ‘‘They tried evasive maneuvers, but once that [the gunfire] started, that was it.’’
The crew was unarmed, he said. The crew notified the Navy before it was captured, but the nearest warship was more than 300 miles away.
The Maersk Alabama is part of a line, owned by a large Danish company, that is based in Norfolk, Va. It routinely works under contract for the Defense Department.
Modern-day pirates often launch small, fast-moving motorized craft from a larger ship, typically one disguised as a fishing vessel. These tactics allow pirates to range far from land, with some hijackings occurring more than 400 miles out at sea.
Phillips began working on commercial vessels after college and gradually climbed the ranks, Coggio said.
‘‘He had been going over there for years, and knew the risks,’’ she said from the family’s home in Underhill, 16 miles east of Burlington, Vt. ‘‘He knows his stuff.’’
Coggio described Phillips as easygoing outside of work, but fiercely competent as a captain, and strongly protective of his crew, she said.
‘‘When he’s in charge, he goes to a different level,’’ she said. ‘‘He has a lot of responsibility.’’
Richard Gurnon, president of Mass. Maritime, said the college community was stunned to learn that two of its graduates were on board but inspired by the crew’s courage. He imagined that the crew might have taken matters into their own hands, like the passengers on United Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001.
‘‘My guess is it was like the ‘Let’s Roll’ passengers,’’ he said. ‘‘They decided it was now or never.’’
Material from wire services was included in this report. Correspondents Erich P Schwartzel, Stewart Bishop, Michele Richinick also contributed.