WASHINGTON (AP) - The crew of a U.S.-flag ship seized by pirates off Somalia has retaken the vessel, American officials said Wednesday, even as the national security establishment faced troubling questions about the hostage-taking at high sea.
Capt. Joseph Murphy, an instructor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, told The Associated Press that he was called by the Department of Defense and told the crew, including his son Shane,
the second in command on the ship, had regained control.
The original taking of the cargo ship, which was captured by pirates near the coast of Somalia, apparently was the first such piracy incident involving U.S. citizens in 200 years. In December 2008, Somali pirates chased and shot at a U.S. cruise ship with more than 1,000 people on board but failed to hijack the vessel.
"The crew is back in control of the ship," a U.S. official said at midday, speaking on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak on the record. "It's reported that one pirate is on board under crew control - the other three were trying to flee," the official said. The status of those other pirates was unknown, the official said, but they were reported to "be in the water."
The crew apparently contacted the private shipping company that it works for. That company, Maersk, scheduled a news conference in
Norfolk, Va., defense officials said.
Another U.S. official, citing a readout from an interagency conference call, said: "Multiple reliable sources are now reporting that the Maersk Alabama is now under control of the U.S. crew. The crew reportedly has one pirate in custody. The status of others is unclear, they are believed to be in the water."
Notwithstanding the reports of the crew securing the ship, the incident posed troubling questions for the young Obama administration in an era of terrorist threats.
President Barack Obama's chief spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said before reports of the crew's safety that the White House was assessing a course of action. "Our top priority is the personal safety of the crew members on board," he said.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said there had been no communications from the pirates for ransom. But he would not go into military plans.
Joseph Murphy, an instructor at a maritime academy, told the Cape Cod newspaper that his son was well aware of the threat of pirates in the area and, while home on a visit only a few weeks ago, had talked with his class about the risk. "He knows the potential danger and he talked with my students about that," Murphy said. "He connected right away with the students."
It was the sixth vessel seized within a week in the dangerous region around Africa, said Cmdr. Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet. She also said that it was the first pirate attack "involving U.S. nationals and a U.S.-flagged vessel in recent memory."
Retired Navy Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, who was in charge of the USS Cole battleship when it was attacked by suicide bombers in 2000, said, "Although the United States and other nations are working in a loose coalition to prevent piracy, the dwindling number of ships in our Navy amplifies the impact of this menace."
Lippold said the administration deserves praises for recommending more combat ships and unmanned aerial vehicles to help interdict this type of threat, but said the Navy "simply needs more ships and at a quicker rate than we are currently building or plan to build."
"Only with a robust and capable Navy will the United States be able to defend our interests worldwide," said Lippold, now a senior military fellow at Military Families United, an advocacy organization for military families.
The crew first reported being under attack, then said that pirates had already boarded the ship, according to "talking points" prepared by the U.S. government for briefing reporters about the situation.
The hijacking came one day after international maritime officials issued a warning on the area.
Following a series of attacks off the eastern coast of Somalia, the Combined Maritime Forces issued an advisory Wednesday highlighting several recent attacks that occurred hundreds of miles off the Somali coast and stating that merchant mariners should be increasingly vigilant when operating in those waters.
"While the majority of attacks during 2008 and early 2009 took place in the Gulf of Aden, these recent attacks off the eastern coast of Somalia are not unprecedented," the advisory provided by Navy officials in Washington said. "An attack on the large crude tanker Sirius Star in November 2008 occurred more than 450 nautical miles off the southeast coast of Somalia."
The advisory said the "scope and magnitude of problem cannot be understated."
The nearest ship from the international coalition working against pirates in the region was hundreds of miles away from the Maersk Alabama.
Associated Press reporters Matthew Lee, Anne Gearan, Ben Feller
and Jesse Holland contributed to this story.