By Patricia Sheridan, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
His 2010 book, “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days,” was turned into the film “Captain Phillips,” which earned six Oscar nominations and starred Tom Hanks. Richard Phillips, 58, says having his ship, the Maersk Alabama, hijacked by Somali pirates was the most terrifying situation he had experienced in his 35-year career as a Merchant Marine. Here is a Q&A with Phillips:
Question: Have things changed in regard to protection since your ship was boarded by pirates?
Answer: I think, first of all, everyone became more aware. I don’t think a lot of people realized that piracy is out there, and it’s not a Disney-esque or Johnny Depp-esque type of thing. The Merchant Marines fight piracy all over the world. We fight piracy in the Philippines, the east and west coast of Africa, and the east and west coast of South America.
I think the awareness of the crews has definitely increased. There are security teams on some of the ships. Also there is a coalition of nations — I believe it’s 30-plus nations — that are patrolling that area off the Horn of Africa. I think if you mix all these things together, it has resulted in not a ship taken in the last 20 months. There have been boats taken but not a ship.
Q: Were you prepared to kill them if you had the opportunity?
A: I did anticipate that happening in the situation I was in. There was no empathy. I understand the choice they made. They made a conscious decision to become a pirate, a thug, a criminal and a murderer. They made that decision, and they didn’t care about who got in their way. Their only goal was to obtain money. Anytime money is your main focus, I think we all come to problems.
(There is) very little opportunity in Somalia. It’s a country that hasn’t been under any type of control or government in 25 years, much like Afghanistan. So I understand the choice they made and the conditions they were living under, but they still made a conscious decision that was wrong. During the incident, I thought it was important to be adversaries, so we all realized what side each one was on. They made it evidently clear to me in their actions and in what they did and said, and I tried to make that evident to them.
Q: You have said you recognized the leader was completely determined and not turning back.
A: Oh, no. I think that was one of the scenes the movie got right, when they are on the bridge. At the time it was just him. It wasn’t all four of them. But in his eyes you could see the malevolence and the evil and the commitment. I knew he wasn’t going to give up. He made that completely clear. He was as determined and committed as much as I was.
Q: He ended up in prison. Did he ever try to reach out to you once he was convicted and sentenced?
A: I hope he wouldn’t have access to a phone or my phone number, but, no, he never did. And I am not interested in talking to him. We said everything we had to say in that lifeboat, I believe. So I have nothing to say to him. He made that decision. He will suffer the repercussions of his decision, and I think that’s important. Hopefully, he will have learned from it when he does get out. I believe he got 32 years. And hopefully when he does get out, they will send him back to Somalia.
Q: In the movie he keeps saying, “It’s going to be OK.” Did he really do that?
A: When he first walked in the bridge, he fired twice from the port bridge and got up there very quick — quicker than I expected — and he fired twice (more) in the air. Those were about the only shots he fired there during the incident on the ship. He walked in leveling the gun at us, my third mate and my (able seaman) and said, “Relax, Captain, relax. Just business. No al-Qaida. Just business. Relax.”
Q: Did you suffer any post-traumatic stress disorder?
A: I don’t know if I had it. In the movie, it shows me in that last scene, but for me it happened two days later. I would wake up out of a sound sleep and be crying and rocking and sobbing like a baby. Actually, it was one of the SEALS after a couple of days on the Bainbridge who just kept on bothering me, near harassing me, because he sensed something. He said, “You know you have to talk to someone. You have to be debriefed.” I said, “If you leave me alone, I’ll call.” I called a psychiatrist the SEALs have and we talked.
He sort of boiled it down to an empirical explanation after he got the gist of me. He explained that it’s just the caveman trying to kill the mastodon. It’s fight or flight, life and death, and your body puts out these hormones. It’s just chemicals coursing through your body. You have to get rid of them, or you may have problems now or six months down the line. Then he just asked me questions like: Do I feel sorry for the pirates? I said, “No, there’s no Stockholm syndrome here, Doc.”
If you put us all back in the lifeboat with no weapons, we will see who would come out. He said, “Do you cry?” I said, “Well, I don’t cry, but I wake up in the morning sobbing like a little baby. I mentally yell at myself and say, ‘What’s my problem? I’m lucky to be alive.’” He explained you have to get rid of these chemicals, and one vehicle is crying and another is talking about it. As a New Englander, I never believed in that and very seldom did (laughs).
He said next time just let it run its course. So the next morning I woke up and found myself sitting on my rack crying and sobbing like a little baby. I just let it flow. I cried for maybe 35-40 minutes, and then it just stopped on its own, and I got up and started my day. It never happened again.
Q: As a captain you are used to being in control. Did you mind giving up control of the movie?
A: I had very little control. The people I met in the process of doing the movie were all very good. They did a very good job on the movie — Paul Greengrass, Billy Ray and, of course, Tom Hanks. Once they started shooting, I wasn’t really there. I was working for the majority of it. I did go to the set one day in Massachusetts. But, no, it’s a movie and you really don’t have that much control. That was the decision we made before, and losing control of the movie was something we discussed.
Q: I’m thinking you probably made enough from the movie and the book to retire if you wanted to.
A: Oh (laughs), everybody thinks it was a lot of money made there. I won’t say it’s a small amount. But really the money that was made there was adequate. I’m still young. I’m 58, so for me, I certainly wasn’t ready to retire. Being ignorant of all the media maelstrom that was going on, I thought I’d be back at work a month and a half later after the incident. It was 14 months later by the time I got back to work.
Q: And you are still telling your story!
A: People seem to connect with it and want to hear it, so I am taking the opportunity to do that and to pass along some of the points I like talking about and a few lessons learned. My take-away from it is we are all really stronger than we even realize as long as we don’t choose to give up or quit. If we strive and continue fighting as best we can, we can overcome a lot of the personal and professional problems that we do have.
Photo: Matthew McQuilkin via Flickr