Sunday, April 26, 2009

One More Hero

Parts 1 to 6: Shane Murphy recounts pirate attack

murphy ss.JPG Chief Officer Shane Murphy, above right, gives a blow-by-blow of the Somali pirates' attack on the Maersk Alabama in an interview Friday morning with Journal staff writer Paul Davis, left. Providence Journal photo / Steve Szydlowski

Gallery: Retrace the hijacking and rescue of Shane Murphy's Maersk Alabama

SEEKONK, Mass. -- Chief Officer Shane Murphy heard the threat before dawn.

"Stop ship," said a voice on the radio. "This is Somali pirate."

Hours later, four armed Somali pirates fired on the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, where 20 Americans tried to repel the attack. At one point Murphy, carrying homemade weapons, hid in a secret passage on the ship. Others barricaded themselves in a 100-degree safe room.

Meanwhile, Capt. Richard Phillips had been taken prisoner. What could Murphy do?

Sitting at his dining room table, the 34-year-old mariner Friday recounted the harrowing April 8 pirate attack on the Maersk Alabama, which ended Easter Sunday when Navy Seals killed three pirates and arrested a fourth.

Part II. 'Shots fired! Shots fired!'

No one was surprised to see the pirate ship stalking the Maersk Alabama that morning.

murphy_250.JPGShane Murphy, at his house in Seekonk, Mass., this morning. Providence Journal photo / Steve Szydlowski

Both Murphy and Captain Phillips, a veteran seaman from Underhill, Vt., knew the waters off the rugged Horn of Africa were dangerous. The day before, in the middle of an afternoon drill, three pirate ships had chased and failed to catch the Alabama.

"I see pirates attack ships all the time," said Murphy, who spends half the year at sea.

But Murphy, a graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, had never seen a pirate board his own ship.

Now, just after dawn, a pirate ship was closing in.

Someone on the Alabama sounded an alarm, and Murphy went below to secure the ship's more than 100 locks and doors. He met with other crew members.

On the radio they heard Phillips, above deck, yell, "Shots fired! Shots fired!"

The men grabbed improvised weapons: hatches, saws, and homemade shivs made by attaching flat metal to wooden handles.

"They were coming aboard," Murphy said.

The men below hid in a safe room. Murphy went back to his office -- a possible entry point on the main deck -- and shoved an overturned desk and chairs against the door.

One of the pirates fired an AK-47 outside the door. Murphy, who now wears one of spent shells on a cord around his neck, thought, " 'It's going to be a fight.'

"I wasn't willing to give up the ship to these guys yet."

maersk_alabama_512.jpg The 17,000-ton container ship Maersk Alabama. AP file photo

Part III. 'I'm thinking the back of my head will explode from a bullet'

When the pirates left the area, Murphy went on deck. Above him, he could hear the pirates yelling at Captain Phillips. They wanted to find the rest of the crew.

On the radio, Phillips sounded calm, "but you could tell he had a gun pointed at his face," Murphy recalled.

A jogger, Murphy sprinted 30 feet along the side of the ship. He knew the pirates, above him, might spot him.

"The whole time I'm thinking the back of my head will explode from a bullet."

Soon after, the chief engineer shut down the ship: lights, engine, everything. The Alabama also broke away from the pirate ship.

Now, the four Somalis were "stuck on the ship with no lights, no power and no way to get off."

Back in the safe room, more than a dozen crew members were crowded into a pitch-black space with no air, food or water.

Murphy and the chief engineer used secret passageways and tunnels to meet. They hashed out their options.

The two of them could try to escape. Or they could try to get the men in the safe room to safety. Or they could try to rescue the captain.

Part IV. 'They said they would shoot someone'

Elsewhere on the ship, crewmember ATM Zahid Reza -- at the wheel when the pirates boarded -- offered to help one of the pirates search for the missing crew, but only if the pirate left his weapon behind.

phillips_175.JPGMaersk Alabama Capt. Richard Phillips

The two men went below. Suddenly Reza and the engineer jumped the pirate, knocked him down and took him to the safe room. Murphy gave the men duct tape to cover the pirate's mouth.

On the radio, Murphy could hear the other pirates screaming.

"They said they would shoot someone if their friend did not come back," Murphy said. "For me, that was the toughest moment."

What should he do? Should he give himself up?

Instead, he went to the kitchen to find food and water for the crew.

"It was kind of eerie," he said. That morning's meal -- cereal, juice, fruit -- was laid out on a table, untouched. Murphy grabbed some food and a kitchen knife.

"On a ship, there all kinds of tools you can use to inflict pain on someone," he said.

"But," he added, "our minds are the best weapons."

Murphy delivered the food to the safe room and found the ship's emergency radio beacon. He triggered the tracking transmitter, used by others to find ships in distress. He wrapped a blanket around the beacon's strobe light.

He then made his way to the captain's quarters. On a yellow legal pad he left a note for Phillips:


We have 1 pirate in steering gear!

Part V. 'I told them I was in charge now'

Armed with a radio, Murphy found a high point on the ship and started making emergency calls.

But there was a problem. The pirates could hear the calls on the same frequency.

Murphy tried another tack.

"I told them I was in charge now, and I had their friend."

If they wanted their friend back, they would have to negotiate with him, he said.

Murphy told the pirates they could take the ship's lifeboat and the money in a safe, and go. Then he changed his voice and pretended to be the head of a rescue team.

The pirates agreed to an exchange of prisoners, and the crew started the ship. "We came out of our hiding places. Some of the guys were pale and dehydrated."

Murphy and other crew members thought the worst was over. But during the switch, Murphy said, Captain Phillips stayed behind to ensure the safety of his crew.

"He didn't want anyone else hurt," Murphy said. "I thought he was going to jump." But he didn't.

Now in charge, Murphy took the Alabama to Mombasa. Phillips stayed with the pirates in a lifeboat 300 miles off the coast of Somalia.

Part VI: Coda

Murphy followed the rest of the story from afar, and called his wife, Serena, from Kenya.

After a five-day standoff, Navy snipers aboard the USS Bainbridge killed three of the pirates on Easter Sunday. A fourth -- Abduhl Wali-i-Musi, the pirate taken prisoner by the crew of the Alabama -- was arrested and is now in New York City. He will be arraigned in a Manhattan federal courtroom on Tuesday morning.

Last week, Murphy joined Serena and their two young boys in the U.S. On Tuesday, he is scheduled to speak to Congress about what the U.S. can do to protect U.S. cargo ships.

But on Friday he tried to relax. He spent the morning taking calls from the media and feeding his youngest son in a high chair. He wore a white sleeveless shirt and a shell casing -- a souvenir from the pirate attack -- around his neck. On his right bicep flashed the tattoo of a mermaid. On his left arm swam a shark.

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