Two Houstonians aboard hijacked ship

April 8, 2009 8:48:29 PM PDT
Two of the men on a hijacked ship off the east coast of Africa are from the Houston area. The Navy has arrived to help restore order and get the crew back in control.[SIGN UP: Get headlines and breaking news sent to you]

It's best described as drama on the high seas, essentially a push and pull between an American crew and pirates.

The USS Bainbridge has arrived at the scene off the Horn of Africa. It's already Thursday morning there and officials say they're waiting to see what happens when the sun comes up. We also know two Houston-area crew members are on board.

There have been 66 Somali pirate attacks since January, but this is the first against an American ship.

Half a world away from home and the familiar Houston ship channel are two Houston-area crew members caught in the middle of danger on the high seas as a Navy warship tries to intervene.

"These are mariners and their lives are at risk," said Captain Joseph Murphy, father of one of the crew members.

The U.S.-flagged container ship Alabama heading towards Kenya with food and relief supplies first came under attack Tuesday by armed pirates off the Somali coast. The ship's unarmed crew of 20 managed to hold them off with powerful hoses, but they returned Wednesday with AK-47s boarding the ship and rounding up the crew members. Someone managed to call the ship's Virginia office.

"We had one communication earlier today from the crew and we're told the crew is safe," said John Reinhart, CEO of Maersk Lines.

However, not everyone was. While the crew took back the ship, the pirates grabbed the ship's captain, Richard Phillips. CNN talked to a crew member who says Phillips is being held on a lifeboat. He has a radio. They had a hostage of their own.

"We had one of their hostages. We had a pirate we took and kept him for 12 hours. We tied him up and he was our prisoner. We returned him but they didn't return the captain. So now we're just trying to offer them whatever we can," said hijack victim Ken Quinn.

Another crew member has been identified as Captain Shane Phillips of Massachusetts. Two others aboard call the Houston area home. One is a member of the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association. Its local union office is on Broadway in southeast Houston.

Another belongs to the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots based out of a building in Pasadena. An official there tells us, "We are not releasing information or commenting on the situation off the coast of Somalia at this time."

Joseph Murphy is talking. He's not only a worried father, but also a professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

"We can replace the ship, we can replace the cargo, we can't replace their lives. So whatever I'm hoping for is the best possible outcome," said Murphy.

The Alabama is the sixth vessel to be seized in just a week. Somali pirates are trained fighters typically armed with high-powered weapons. While the American crew is unarmed, this year for the first time ever maritime students are learning how to defend themselves and their ships with deadly force.

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