US sailors who thwarted pirates back with families

Associated Press Writers

OXON HILL, Md. (AP) -- An emotionally drained but ebullient Maersk Alabama crew told gripping stories of captivity at sea Thursday while urging stronger protection for ships operating in treacherous Horn of Africa waters.

Just a few hours after arriving in the rain early Thursday to a victorious greeting at a Maryland military base, the crew of the seized commercial ship awoke to sunny skies and even sunnier families - but also lingering doubts about the safety of the seas.

"We need more security and more patrols in the waterway," crew member William Rios told interviewers. While he said he wasn't afraid of going back to sea there, Rios, a New Yorker, said "it would be better to be armed."

The crew itself was still very much in victory mode, transformed from agony to adulation. It basked in the kind of celebrity treatment that only the capital city can offer. Hordes of reporters and camera crews descended on newly arrived 19 crew members who were staying at a suburban Maryland hotel.

The crew's captain, Richard Phillips, remained behind in Kenya, although his flight back home was nearing. George Bacigalupo, general manager of Atlantic Aviation at Vermont's Burlington International Airport, said a plane carrying Phillips was expected to arrive there late Friday afternoon.

The seamen's words could best be summed up as a mix of relief and resignation, gratitude for newfound freedom coupled with declarations of determination not to be grounded by threats of piracy.

"I'm just so relieved and overwhelmed that it's over," third engineer John Cronan said. "I'm home now. The greatest country in the world."

It was a week ago that pirates seized the Maersk Alabama briefly before Phillips surrendered himself in exchange for the safety of his 19-member crew. Phillips was freed Sunday after five days of being held hostage in a lifeboat when U.S. Navy SEAL snipers on the destroyer USS Bainbridge killed three of his captors.

The crew earlier had scuffled with the pirates, wounding one of them with an ice pick, in taking back control of their ship. The bandits fled the ship with Phillips as their captive, holding him in the lifeboat in a high-stakes standoff until the SEAL sharpshooters took action.

On Thursday morning, crew member ATM Zahid Reza, who is from Connecticut, described a nightmarish incident in which he and ship mates lured a pirate named Abdul to a darkened engine room. During a noisy struggle, Reza said, he stabbed the hostage-taker in the hand.

"I held him, I tied his hands and tied his legs. He was fighting me," he said.

"There was a lot of yelling shouting and screaming. I was attempting to kill him. He was scared. He said he was planning to ask for $3 million. I told him, 'You're a Muslim and I'm a Muslim.' "

New Yorker Miguel Ruiz said that when the pirates boarded the ship he grabbed a flashlight and a knife, went to a secure area while alarms were going off everywhere. He said he originally thought "if I die, I'm going to take someone else with me."

But he said the captain gave orders to the crew not to do anything to the pirates. "We got orders to do nothing." He said they gave the captured pirate water and food and said "he didn't control us. we controlled him."

Ruiz recalled one conversation he had with a pirate.

"I said to him, why do you do that?" Ruiz said. He said the pirate responded that "we've got 20 million people in Somalia who are poor, that don't have education. We don't have no food."

John White, an electrician, said he was having some coffee in the galley when the alarms went off.

"I went to the engine room. I had to secure two doors," he said. "The ship was totally dark. It was 130 degrees in the place. We were hiding for 12 hours. I laid down on the floor to keep from passing out."

White said that he and the others with him left the room after a coded announcement came on the public address system, went to the deck and found four pirates there with assault weapons.

"They couldn't get off the ship without our help," he said. "They got into a boat to leave. They needed our help but unfortunately they snagged the captain."

White said that merchant marine sailors are not allowed to carry weapons.

Second mate Ken Quinn acknowledged that he would worry about sailing again through pirate-infested waters. "It would be good to be armed ... but if we start shooting at them they might start killing more seamen," he said.

The crewmen initially were greeted at Andrews around 1 a.m. EDT by several dozen family members who crowded onto the wet tarmac near the arriving plane, waving small flags in the unseasonably cool air. Shipping company employees erected a banner near the runway adorned with yellow ribbons, reading "Welcome Home Maersk Alabama."

Robert Vaughan of Dallas, a brother of 3rd Mate Colin Wright, said of Colin: "He'll be back out there. That's his job."

Asked how his brother felt about security for crews, Vaughan said, "Something needs to be done to protect the crews."

Quinn told ABC's "Good Morning America" that the hero's welcome was unexpected. "I was just a worker doing my job," he said. "If you're a movie star or something you expect that stuff every day, but just Joe Blow on the street, it doesn't happen to us."

Sitting on a couch at the hotel here, Myra Ruiz, Miguel's wife, recalled how she felt when she heard the Alabama had been taken hostage. Speaking in Spanish through a translator, she said, "My daughter answered the phone. She wasn't talking, but her eyes were full of tears. I felt nervous and couldn't control myself."

"We felt very happy" when they found out that he had been freed, she said.

"I got emotional and cried," said Ruiz' son Miguel, 16.


Associated Press Writer John Curran contributed to this story from Montpelier, Vt.