Carrying food and other aid, the Maersk Alabama, a 508-foot, 20-man container ship owned by Maersk Lines, was en route from Djibouti to Kilindi Harbor, the bustling port of Mombasa, Kenya's second largest city. At sea on the Indian Ocean some 200 miles off Somalia, the Maersk Alabama was traveling one of the world's busiest shipping corridors, and the crew enjoyed fine weather on a beautiful stretch of sea. While the environment could have been the ideal setting for a cruise vacation; for the officers and crew it was just work, made even more arduous by the threat of a perennial plague of the area: pirates.
By early April the crew had already faced three pirate attacks. Twice, groups of young men in light, speedy craft approached the ship, pointed AK-47s at the crew and fired into the air. Once, it was just one man; crew members believe he may have been sent to shadow the ship and report back to a larger gang. Nonetheless, each time, the Maersk Alabama maintained its course.
But at 7:15 a.m. on Wednesday, April 8, a fourth group of armed pirates came alongside in a speedboat and successfully boarded the ship. Laden with cargo, the Maersk Alabama was riding low in the water, and it proved easy for four agile young men to secure grappling hooks and climb aboard. The Maersk Alabama had a locked cage blocking its ladder well from the main deck to the bridge, but the pirates shot its lock off and swiftly ascended to the bridge.
Crewmembers rang the alarm. Third Engineer John Cronan grabbed a knife, along with a photo of his two daughters. Deckhand Miguel Ruiz, from New York, also had a knife and vowed to fightbut Captain Phillips spoke over the ship's public address system and ordered his men not to resist. Ably following their training, the crew sent out a distress signal by satellite radio, barricaded themselves below deck in the emergency control room and steering gear compartment that, without air conditioning, could reach 130 degrees, and cut ship's power and lights. Crewman Matt Fisher thinks the pirates may have been nervous about following them belowdecks into the ship's dark hold. Holding the emergency control room, the crew retained control of the ship's rudder and engines throughout the ordeal.
But Phillips, the Third Mate and two sailors stayed above deck to deal with the pirates.