Capt. Phillips delivers message of inspiration

STEUBENVILLE – Capt. Richard Phillips told hundreds of area residents and high school students, “You are stronger than you even know.”

He spoke Thursday night at the Steubenville High School auditorium as part of the Herald-Star, Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce Speaker Series.

His book, “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs and Dangerous Days at Sea” was the inspiration for the critically acclaimed, award-winning film “Captain Phillips”starring Tom Hanks. The movie has been nominated for several Academy Awards, including best picture, best supporting actor (Barkhad Abdi), best adapted screenplay, sound mixing, sound editing and film editing.

Phillips was held captive for several days by Somalian pirates who hijacked the Maersk Alabama, the first hijacking of a U.S. ship in more than 200 years. Four pirates took over the ship with its cargo of food aid to Africa on April 8, 2009.

He had told the crew, “It was a matter of when, not if.” Sure enough, after he received a series of warning e-mails, a voice came across the radio with the news that “Somali pirates are coming to get you.”

Phillips said he “hoped for the best and planned for the worst” by running his crew through surprise drills in the time leading up to the pirates’ boarding of the ship. Although the ship’s crew had procedures to deal with pirates, no one was prepared to dodge bullets fired from AK-47s, and the captain and crew didn’t have a single gun to defend themselves with.

Many of the crew hunkered into the engine room aboard the ship, but Phillips and three other crewmen were held at gunpoint on the bridge. After a lengthy game of hide-and-seek in which Phillips did everything he could to misdirect the pirates and keep his men hidden, the remainder of the 20-member crew managed to wound and hold the leader of the band of pirates, named Abduwali Muse, and demanded the others leave the ship. The pirates, who had abandoned their own small boat when they boarded the Maersk Alabama, demanded an escape boat, food and fuel.

Phillips fell victim to a botched trade agreement and found himself a hostage of the four pirates, who holed up with him in a sweltering 28-foot long covered lifeboat.

“The biggest thing that the media got wrong is that I didn’t surrender myself as some kind of sacrificial, heroic fatted calf. I gave myself up to try to get those pirates off the ship,” he said. “I knew that if I went with them they could never get back on the Maersk Alabama. That meant my ship and crew and cargo, my responsibilities, would be safe, free and clear.”

The Navy responded and negotiations began between the pirates and officials aboard the USS Bainbridge. Late on the night of April 10, Phillips jumped from the lifeboat and swam a few yards toward the nearby destroyer.

“I told Shane Murphy, the chief mate, ‘If you see a splash outside the back door that’s me. Come get me.’ I knew I had to simply wait for the right moment and jump off that damn lifeboat,” Phillips said.

He was recaptured by the pirates because the bright moon that night made him an easy target in the water.

The standoff dragged on until April 12, when SEAL snipers determined Phillips was in imminent danger. In an incredibly difficult and precise maneuver, they shot and killed three of the pirates. Because they knew where Phillips was seated, the SEAL snipers were able to shoot around him to execute the rescue.

Muse, the pirates’ leader who was aboard the USS Bainbridge at the time the SEALs performed the rescue, was arrested and is currently serving a 33-year sentence in Terre Haute, Ind.

Phillips was hailed as a hero, but he has said all along that “The real heroes are the Navy SEALS and our nation’s men and women in uniform. They do the impossible every day.

“I don’t consider myself heroic,” he said. “I consider myself a lucky guy. I’m not exactly intelligent or brave and all that. It was my duty.”

Phillips is a graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy; a member of the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots Union; and a licensed merchant mariner who still captains. He married Andrea Coggio in 1987, and she was there to welcome him home after the piracy incident. They are the parents of Mariah and Danny and reside in Underhill, Vt.

When he told his story Thursday, Phillips also shared three of the most important things he has learned from 35 years of experience at sea.

“First, you are much stronger than you even know. You can do more, and you can take more,” he said. “Second, the only time that all is lost is when we choose to give up, to quit. And last, a focused and dedicated team can overcome almost any obstacle or solve almost any problem. You have to commit yourself to see it through.”

Phillips’ presentation was followed by a question-and-answer session, and attendees had the opportunity to meet Phillips and have him sign copies of his book,

Sponsors for the series included Eastern Gateway Community College; the Franciscan University of Steubenville; Trinity Health System, the Health Plan of the Upper Ohio Valley, which purchased 300 tickets for local high school students to attend the event; and WTRF-TV. Special support was provided by Bayberry House Bed and Breakfast, Piergallini Catering, Newbrough Photo, Hertz-Thrifty Car Rental and Steubenville City Schools.

(Dalrymple can be contacted at