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Captain Of Hijacked Vessel Still Hostage

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. A dramatic pirate standoff today on the high seas off the coast of Somalia. Four pirates managed to board the American flagged cargo ship, Maersk Alabama, as it sailed some 275 miles off the coast. There were reports the pirates had captured the ship. Then word came that the ship's crew had outmaneuvered them by disabling the vessel and capturing one of the pirates. Now the latest reports have the pirates in the ship's lifeboat with one hostage, the U.S. captain.

Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been following the story all day long and joins us now. Tom, can you tell us how these pirates managed to get on board the ship and what happened afterward?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, we're told that this all happened shortly after 7 AM local time. The crew of the cargo ship noticed four speedboats heading straight toward them. They radioed this in. And then within minutes, they say, four heavily-armed pirates climbed aboard with grappling hooks. Now, what happened next is kind of murky. The crew appears to have refused to sail the ship anywhere, refused to cooperate with pirates.

The crew, I'm told, somehow disabled the ship. It was basically dead in the water. And then not long after, the pirates grabbed the captain, got a hold of one of the ship's lifeboats and then took off. And we're told the Navy aircraft have spotted the captain and the pirates in the lifeboat, who is, as far as we know, they're still in that lifeboat several hundred miles from land.

NORRIS: Do we know anything about whether or not the captain may have been injured?

BOWMAN: Well, he appears to be okay. He's been identified as Richard Phillips of Vermont. And the Navy is, I'm told, is maintaining constant surveillance of that lifeboat. Now, one of the things they look for, of course, is the mother ship of the pirates. What the pirates do is oftentimes tow these speedboats behind a larger ship and then the speedboats peel away, swarm a commercial ship, take control and demand ransom.

So the pirates could either head to a mother ship, and I'm told the Navy has certain suspect ships in the area, or return to the cargo ship itself. And that's, I'm told, is a particular concern.

NORRIS: Now, so the drones have identified the vessel that the captain is on, are there any U.S. warships or vessels from other nations that are heading in this direction?

BOWMAN: Well, the closest U.S. ship, I'm told, is the USS Bainbridge. It's an American destroyer. It's heading toward the scene, but it's hours away, as many as eight hours away. When it gets closer it could send out its helicopters. They have two armed Seahawk helicopters, that's the Navy's version of the Army's Blackhawk helicopter. And the Bainbridge, of course, is heavily armed, but it also has unmanned drone aircraft. It's one called a ScanEagle that could be sent out to take video and monitor the situation.

NORRIS: The crew members have been able to use the ship's satellite phone to reach out to family members, what more do we know about their condition or the details, more details about what happened?

BOWMAN: Well, the crew appears to be okay, no injuries. And, as you say, they're talking with family members. They're also talking with reporters about what happened to them. But, again, at this point, the concern for the crew is if the pirates head back to the cargo ship.

NORRIS: There have been several other instances of piracy in this area, particularly in the Gulf of Aden. Is this the first U.S. ship to be taken in this wave of piracy?

BOWMAN: Yeah, as far as we know, it's the first U.S. manned and U.S. flagship taken. The Maersk Alabama operates out of Norfolk, Virginia. Now, for many months these Somali pirates have been grabbing ships from other countries, demanding even getting millions of dollars in ransom money from ship owners. And some are saying that this is the first pirate activity involving American civilians since the days of the Barbary Pirates off the coast of Africa in the early 1800s.

NORRIS: Thank you very much, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

NORRIS: That was NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.