Hijacked Capt. Phillips: 'We're stronger than we know'

By MIKE TIGHE | La Crosse Tribune, Wis. | Published: September 1, 2014

LA CROSSE, Wis. (MCT) — People are tougher than they realize — and they learn it when life-threatening conditions test their mettle, says Capt. Richard Phillips, who survived such an ordeal when pirates hijacked his cargo ship off the coast of Somalia and U.S. Navy SEALs rescued him.

That is the message Phillips intends to deliver during a presentation titled “Steering Your Ship Through Rough Waters: Lessons on Leadership from Captain Phillips” at 7 p.m. Sept. 9 in the main theater of the Viterbo Fine Arts Center in La Crosse.

Phillips, whose presentation is the opening event of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership’s fall lecture series, was captain of the American cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama when four Somali pirates hijacked the vessel on April 8, 2009.

The pirates’ five-day siege, including holding Phillips hostage, was chronicled on TV and in newspapers at the time. It also is detailed in the former captain’s book, “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea” which became a movie starring Tom Hanks as Phillips last year.

“I will tell my story, which is in the book, and the lessons learned” during the Reinhart Institute talk, Phillips said in a phone interview.

Institute director Rick Kyte said, “It’s really important for the series to get somebody who can tell a story and has done something admirable.

“We like to have somebody not just talking about ethics but exemplifying them in life and learn from that,” said Kyte, who also writes a regular column in the La Crosse Tribune titled The Ethical Life.

“What is it like to experience something that none of us has, what to draw upon and how to learn from it,” Kyte said.

Along those lines, Phillips said the main lessons he learned and will explain include:

Remain calm even in threatening situations.

Stay flexible to adjust to conditions.

“We are all stronger than we know, and we can do more than we think.”

“Nothing is really over until we choose to quit.”

Phillips said he did not consider quitting during the pirate attack and while being held hostage on the Maersk’s lifeboat.

“At times, I didn’t see a good outcome,” he said. “I could see the confrontation between the Navy and the pirates wasn’t going to end well.”

Phillips, now 59 and retired, said he didn’t have time to think about anything except the crew’s safety during the first 12 hours the young pirates were aboard the ship, intent on getting a $2 million ransom from the shipping line.

“In the lifeboat, mentally, I was able to think of my wife, Andrea, and my children, Mariah and Danny,” he said. “I went through my life and settled my fears mentally. Faith had an important part.”

Another lesson learned is that “attitude will impact anything,” he said, adding that remaining positive despite the fear helped sustain him.

The hardest part, “from my perspective, after they boarded, was I didn’t see any way of being extricated. We saw the commitment and the determination they had. They weren’t going to give up,” Phillips said.

Even after the captain gave the interlopers $30,000 from the ship’s safe, they refused to leave and, intent on millions instead, three of them held Phillips hostage in the Maersk’s 5-ton, red fiberglass, enclosed lifeboat, while the crew held one of the pirates hostage, according to his book and other accounts.

After the crew released the pirate, hopefully in exchange for the captain, the pirates double-crossed them and kept Phillips.

The immediate drama ended when SEAL snipers shot three of the pirates, captured another and rescued Phillips.

The drama has been extended in the multimillion-dollar lawsuits of some crew members against the Maersk Line and the Waterman Steamship Corp., alleging that Phillips’ decision to travel too close to the Somali coast and other actions endangered them. The suits do not name Phillips.

“I think we live in a litigious society,” said Phillips, who said he understands that some crew members have settled the suits. “It’s human nature — trying litigation to get money.”

Phillips said he wrote the book not only to convey his story but also to explain the role of merchant marine ships under the U.S. flag.

“The Merchant Marine is important in peace and wartime,” he said. “Eighty-five percent of our goods are transported on water.”

As for the accuracy of the movie, Phillips said, “It is hard to tell the story of five days in two hours,” and some of the facts were tweaked for brevity and/or effect.

However, Hanks and director Paul Greengrass did admirable jobs, he said.

“It showed the tenseness and stress,” he said, “but the incident was worse than in the movie.”

©2014 the La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wis.) Visit the La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wis.) at www.lacrossetribune.com. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

Maersk-Alabama captain Richard Phillips, right, with Cmdr. Frank Castellano, commanding officer of USS Bainbridge, after being rescued by U.S Naval Forces off the coast of Somalia in 2009.


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