Freighter crewman recounts struggle with pirates

April 26, 2009 1:12:30 PM PDT
Sailors have a short list of what to grab in an emergency. When the urgent long-short-long-short din of the Maersk Alabama's alarm bell woke third engineer John Cronan on April 8, he didn't hesitate.

"I grabbed a pocket knife and a flashlight, and I took that photo and put it in my pocket," Cronan said, picking up a slightly wrinkled picture of his fiancee's daughters that is now framed on their coffee table.

He carried it through tense days of huddling with crewmen in a stifling hideout, launching lifeboats, scuffling with one pirate the crew members subdued, and finally pitching a celebration that "woke up Mombasa," - the Kenyan city where the Alabama was headed - when Capt. Richard Phillips was freed.

"It stayed with me the whole time," 46-year-old Cronan said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Cronan weaves a tale of tense moments and long waits while a standoff with Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean grabbed international attention.

The memories of equatorial heat, hours of waiting punctuated by minutes of violence, mind games with life-and-death stakes and scenes of surreal beauty in the midst of fear remained remarkably vivid less than a week after his return to a brick home in the leafy suburbs of Philadelphia.


With the captain on the public address system warning, "This is not a drill, they're on board, we're taking fire," safety was top priority. The 17,000-ton container ship had multiple places of concealment.

"We had hardened the target," Cronan said.

At one point, most of the crew of 20 hid in a small compartment with a hatch tied shut from inside and only one other opening, too small to crawl through. And there they got one of their biggest scares. As they huddled in the stifling heat, they heard a sound.

"That little hatchway was opened, and we saw a long skinny arm with a flashlight reach in," Cronan said. "We all stayed out of the cone of light."

The man finally went away, but not before fear had Cronan thinking thoughts of his deceased mother and father.

"I didn't know what to expect next. A gun barrel? Or a hand grenade?" he said. "I thought, 'This is it. Mom and Dad, I'm coming to see you."'

As hours crept by, the crewmen endured a slower torment. A dozen or more men huddled together for 10 hours in oppressive equatorial heat without light or ventilation.

"I would say the temp in that place was 130, because I routinely work at 115 to 120," he said. "We were fearing that some of the older fellows weren't going to make it in that heat."

Phillips kept the crew apprised of his efforts to protect them and cajole the attackers, keying his walkie-talkie microphone so they could hear his conversation and follow his activities.

"Capt. Phillips was not taken. He surrendered himself. He performed brilliantly," Cronan said.

The crew gained advantage when one group, including Cronan, subdued a pirate, who was stabbed in the hand and tied up. That gave them bargaining power when three pirates took Phillips from the ship in a small motor boat.

The boat stopped running, and the frantic pirates attempted to paddle back to the ship. That, Cronan said, lead to an unlikely scene: "Capt. Phillips standing in the little boat and directing the three pirates to paddle - he's a good skipper - with his Boston accent, saying 'You there on the starboard side, keep up the pace."'


Cronan said assault weapons were leveled at him once when he made a dash across the deck, and again after he and another crew member launched the ship's 30-foot enclosed, motorized life boat in an effort to broker a trade with the pirates: the bigger boat and their injured companion in return for Phillips.

The wiry, 165-pound Cronan, armed with a hammer and a knife, and the other man, with two knives, positioned themselves in the idled boat so they and Phillips surrounded the three, hoping to overpower them.

"We figured each of us would take down one," he said. "Since we had inflated jackets and they didn't, if necessary we'd just bear hug them and jump in the water and drown them."

But Phillips, sensing his crew had prepared for a fight, defused the situation, urging the sailors to stick to the agreed trade: "All right guys, ... let's make this happen."

But when the injured pirate clambered down a 30-foot ladder and into the lifeboat, the pirates drove off, taking Phillips as well. Cronan and the other crewman paddled the smaller boat back to the ladder fully exposed to the pirates' AK-47s and without a prisoner. "There was no reason not to spray us," Cronan said.

The fearful paddle under a bright full moon brought a bizarre mix of sensations.

"It was so surreal, paddling that boat," Cronan said. "It was a beautiful night, about 85 degrees. It was flat calm, not a ripple in the water."

Cronan managed to fire off an e-mail later to his fiancee's daughters, 12-year-old Annie and 9-year-old Sarah, back in Pennsylvania, saying he had seen a beautiful moon and thought of them.


The next day, the Navy destroyer USS Bainbridge took over trying to free Phillips. The freighter, now with 18 Navy sailors and "plenty of firepower," headed for Mombasa, with a crew worried for their skipper.

When they made port, the crew bade an emotional farewell to the sailors. But the tense wait for word of Capt. Phillips' fate dragged on.

Not until Easter Sunday did the sailors hear that he had been freed and was aboard the Bainbridge. They responded with all the noise the big freighter could make.

"We sounded the whistle, we shot off flares, we woke up Mombasa when we heard Capt. Phillips was safe," Cronan said.


Pitted against young, agile pirates armed with assault weapons, Cronan said the freighter crew's main weapon "was our solidarity."

"They didn't expect us to stand fast," he said.

Cronan said he didn't have time to be scared, but looking back he wonders how a group of 40-somethings was able to deal with the attack.

The "20-ish" pirates were driven by desperation, Cronan said. "At that age men don't fear death or injury."

"I'm not praising them, I'm just giving them their due, they're heroes at home," he said. "Nowhere in America experiences that kind of poverty."

Back on U.S. soil, the publicity for the crew was immediate. Cronan and his fiancee appeared on CNN's "Larry King Live" and were interviewed by People magazine.

On the long plane ride home from Mombasa, talk turned to who might play the crew members in an action film. Cronan's choice: "Billy Bob Thornton. He's an angry, skinny guy."

The second-generation merchant seaman is taking the summer off before deciding when - or whether - to sign up for another trip. He has time to reflect.

"I'm a sailor on land," he said.

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