On October 11th, 2013, a movie called Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks as Captain Richard Phillips, premiered worldwide. The movie received glowing reviews, and claims to be based on actual events. But what has actually happened?
In April 2009, the Maersk Alabama cargo ship (now MV Tygra) was attacked and captured by four Somali pirates less than 300 nautical miles off the Coast of Somalia. The whole crew were taken hostage and the pirates took the captain Richard Phillips, off the ship into a lifeboat. On orders from former President Obama, the U.S. Navy, and specifically Navy marksmen, fatally shot all but one of the pirates and rescued Captain Phillips. The story made national and international news.
But does Captain Phillips tell the whole story? And does the movie narrate it accurately?
In fact, approximately half of the crewmembers, represented by Brian Beckcom, are claiming that the shipping company, Maersk Lines Limited, willfully allowed the Maersk Alabama to sail directly into pirate-infested waters despite receiving multiple warnings to avoid the area. And the lawsuit further claims that the Alabama didn’t have adequate anti-pirate security measures. That lawsuit settled before it went to trial in Mobile, Alabama, on December 2nd, 2013.
“The real heroes are the men and women of the U.S. Navy who rescued the shipping company from its poor decisions and the brave crewmembers who actually fought back against the pirates once they boarded the ship – despite the crewmembers being unarmed while facing pirates carrying automatic weapons,” says Brian Beckcom.
According to the lawsuit, Maersk essentially “outsourced” the security of the Alabama to the U.S. military, rather than providing basic anti-piracy prevention measures such as armed guards. Since the April 2009 attack, the Maersk Alabama has been approached by pirates on at least two other occasions.Hhowever, the pirates were quickly repelled by private armed contractors who now accompany Maersk vessels that travel in pirate-infested waters.
Why was the Maersk Alabama hijacked in the first place?
Although Captain Phillips is credited with saving the lives of his crew in the movie, the lawsuit filed by nine crewmembers sought to show that the real story was different from the movie. Captain Phillips’ crew who were on board the Maersk Alabama when it was hijacked say that their lives were put in jeopardy because of the decisions made by Phillips. They claim that:
Captain Phillips risked lives when he ignored multiple warnings of pirate attacks in nearby waters. Instead of taking a safer route, he chose to sail the Maersk Alabama into pirate-infested waters.
Captain Phillips claimed that he was not scared of pirates and ignored pleas from the crew to avoid the area, notorious for pirate attacks.
Captain Phillips sailed the ship approximately 300 nautical miles closer to the coast of Somalia than was deemed safe by NATO, multiple military anti-piracy groups and the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
Nine of the crewmembers claim that the Captain and the shipping company acted irresponsibly by putting them in harm’s way to begin with. This is a far cry from the depiction of heroism in the movie that shows Captain Phillips offering himself as a hostage if the pirates let his crew go. Had Captain Phillips heeded all warnings, his crew would not have had to endure the emotional and physical trauma of the Maersk Alabama hijacking.
How much of the story did Hollywood get wrong?
While Hollywood’s version of events received critical acclaim, the version of events depicted in the movie “Captain Phillips” is highly inaccurate. These inaccuracies have caused the court of public opinion to cast judgment on what actually happened based on what they saw portrayed in the movie. The following are six misconceptions from the movie:
First of all, the lawsuit filed by the crewmembers is not a publicity stunt tied to the release of the film. The lawsuit was filed in 2009, nearly three years prior to the conception of “Captain Phillips.” The defendants deliberately chose to not settle the lawsuit quickly, likely knowing the release of the film could benefit their case.
Secondly, the real Captain Phillips is not the hero portrayed so well by Tom Hanks in the movie. The facts surrounding the event, as told by crewmembers and witnesses, along with the communications between the Captain and Maersk, reveal that Captain Phillips knowingly placed the lives of his crew in danger by sailing into dangerous waters in an effort to save time and money.
Thirdly, the crew was not “lazy.”It was composed by experienced seamen who were not provided with adequate security or means for defending themselves against pirate attacks, despite their employer sending them – unarmed – into some of the most dangerous waters in the world. The crew fought back valiantly against pirates who were armed with automatic weapons, using primitive tools, such as pieces of pipe.
Fourthly, the Maersk Alabama pirate attack was not the result of an unlucky or unpredictable event. Captain Phillips and Maersk received multiple daily reports of pirate attacks in the area and warnings to stay more than 600 miles from the coast. Instead, Captain Phillips chose to sail as close to 250 miles from shore, and the ship was within three hundred miles off shore when the ship was attacked. There had been attempted attacks on vessels in the same area as the Maersk Alabama the week before the April 2009 hijacking. Also, there have been several attempted attacks on the Maersk Alabama since 2009 in the same region, all of which clearly show how dangerous the area was.
Fifthly, the “heroic” actions by Captain Phillips described in the movie resulted in the need for a rescue by the U.S. Navy. This rescue would never have taken place if Captain Phillips had heeded the warnings he received and sailed in safer waters.
Sixthly, since the attack, Maersk Lines Limited didn’t settle the lawsuit brought by nine of the crewmembers but paid them a confidential amount in 2014, in order to not go to trial.
Maersk, Captain Phillips and their lawyers fought to keep the facts about what really happened aboard Maersk Alabama confidential. “The investigative work regarding the trial has brought to light many facts which reveal the inaccuracies of the Phillips and Hollywood versions of events. Although we cannot speak to what really happened, we can say that the company was playing Russian roulette with its employees,” said Brian Beckcom.
He added too that.
“When we filed our lawsuit in 2009, one of our central claims was that the shipping company, knowing exactly where they were sending their crew, should have provided the crew with adequate security for when they traveled through some of the most dangerous waters in the world. Among other things, we claim in our lawsuit that the ship should have had armed guards. The shipping company and others in the industry claimed at that time that arming commercial ships would make piracy events more dangerous, not less”.
Has anything been done to make things safer for crews on ships navigating pirate-infested waters since 2009 ?
In addition to amping up the security on vessels traveling in pirate-infested waters, countries have formed coalitions of vessels that patrolled the Indian Ocean, deterring and preventing pirate attacks. By 2013, the rate of successful pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean had dropped to zero and and over 1,000 pirates had been captured prosecuted by authorities in over 21 countries. The lead pirate from the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking, Muse, had been captured alive by the U.S. Navy and was sentenced to 33 years in jail in the United States for his crimes.
Maersk Alabama cut the corner to attempt to zip past the Horn of Africa, thereby reducing their exposure time at sea as they passed Somalia. A miscalculation for which they paid the price.
Another question that has never been addressed is: what happened to the cash from the safe? Did the pirates attempt to abscond with it? Was it declared missing or discovered in another part of the ship? Nothing has been declared on that aspect.
The US Navy, despite working with a coalition of ships, decided to detach and conduct a rescue operation themselves. The rules of engagement used were based on US national security response. Remaining part of a coalition force would have curtailed their rescue efforts in many respects.