NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — It began with a grappling hook coming over the stern.
Suddenly, a group of Somali pirates were firing shots in the air, setting off a violent struggle on a massive freighter that crescendoed with a crewman from Connecticut stabbing a pirate in the hand with an ice pick.
For 19 of the crew of the Maersk Alabama, the ordeal was coming to an end Saturday as they pulled into a Kenyan port, where some publicly recounted their stories for the first time. Exhilarated by freedom, they also mourned the absence of Capt. Richard Phillips, whom they hailed for sacrificing his freedom to save them.
Phillips, 53, of Underhill, Vermont, told his crew to lock themselves in a cabin and surrendered himself to safeguard his men, crew members said. He remained a hostage Saturday, floating in a lifeboat with his pirate captors in a tense standoff with U.S. warships.
Never miss a local story.
“He saved our lives!” 2nd mate Ken Quinn, of Lakewood Ranch, declared from the ship as it docked in the resort and port city of Mombasa. “He’s a hero.”
Quinn pumped his fists in the air and said he was ready for a cold beer and a hug from his wife and kids. For William Rios, a trip to give thanks at St. John the Baptist Church in New York City was high on his to-do list.
ATM Reza, a father of one from Hartford, Connecticut, described stabbing one of the pirates with an ice pick in the engine room and tying him up but watching the other bandits flee with the captain to the enclosed lifeboat.
Quinn told reporters the experience was “terrifying and exciting at the same time.” Asked what he thought of the pirates who seized the boat, Quinn said: “They’re just hungry.”
Maersk President John Reinhart said from Norfolk, Virginia that the ship was still a crime scene and the crewmen could not leave until the FBI investigates the attack.
He said crew members have been provided phones so they can stay in touch with family members.
“When I spoke to the crew, they won’t consider it done when they board a plane and come home,” Reinhart said. “They won’t consider it done until the captain is back, nor will we.”
Negotiations with the pirates were continuing on Saturday, Pentagon spokesman Maj. Stewart Upton said. But the Pentagon will not comment on any aspect of the negotiations, including who is leading them.
Other bandits, among the hundreds who have made the Gulf of Aden the world’s most dangerous waterway, seized an Italian tugboat off Somalia’s north coast Saturday as it was pulling barges, said Shona Lowe, a spokeswoman at NATO’s Northwood maritime command center outside London.
The Foreign Ministry in Rome confirmed 10 of the 16 crew members are Italian. The others are five Romanians and a Croatian, according to Micoperi, the Italian company that owns the ship. A piracy expert said the two hijackings did not appear related.
Phillips jumped out of the lifeboat Friday and tried to swim for his freedom but was recaptured when a pirate fired an automatic weapon at or near him, according to U.S. Defense Department officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk about the sensitive, unfolding operations.
A U.S. military official said that early Saturday the pirates in the lifeboat believed to be armed with pistols and AK-47s fired a few shots at a small Navy vessel that had approached, possibly to conduct reconnaissance. No one was hurt and the Navy vessel turned away, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The U.S. sailors did not return fire, he said. The U.S. had not approached in a rescue attempt, he said.
The captain of the warship watching the lifeboat has been getting direction from FBI hostage negotiators and talks have taken place with the pirates, U.S. officials said.
“We believe that Capt. Phillips will survive this situation,” said Capt. Joseph Murphy, father of second-in-command Shane Murphy. “We know he will survive because he will never give up.”
In Underhill, two young girls set up a lemonade stand with a sign saying “Come home safe Capt. Phillips.”
Rev. Charles Danielson of the St. Thomas Church, said the congregation would continue to pray for Phillips and his family, who are members, and he would encourage “people to find hope in the triumph of good over evil.”
Reinhart said he spoke with Phillips’ wife, Andrea, who is surrounded by family and two company employees who were sent to support her.
“She’s a brave woman,” Reinhart said. “And she has one favor to ask: ‘Do what you have to do to bring Richard home safely.’ That means don’t make a mistake, folks. We have to be perfect in our execution.”
The warship USS Bainbridge was joined Friday by the USS Halyburton, which has helicopters, and the huge, amphibious USS Boxer was expected soon after, the defense officials said. The Boxer, the flagship of a multination anti-piracy task force, resembles a small aircraft carrier. It has a crew of more than 1,000, a mobile hospital, missile launchers and about two dozen helicopters and attack planes.
On Friday, the French navy freed a sailboat seized off Somalia last week by other pirates, but one of the hostages was killed.
The vice president of the Philippines, the nation with the largest number of sailors held captive by Somali pirates, appealed for the safety of hostages to be ensured in the standoff.
“We hope that before launching any tactical action against the pirates, the welfare of every hostage is guaranteed and ensured,” said Vice President Noli de Castro.
Meanwhile, France’s defense minister promised an autopsy and investigation into the death of a hostage killed during a commando operation, which freed four other captives and was prompted by threats the passengers would be executed. Two pirates also were killed. Three pirates were captured and are to be brought to France for criminal proceedings.
Somali pirates are holding about a dozen ships with more than 200 crew members, according to the Malaysia-based International Maritime Bureau, a piracy watchdog group. The bureau lists 66 attacks since January, not including the Alabama or the Italian ship seized Saturday.
Associated Press writers who contributed to this report include Mohamed Olad Hassan and Mohamed Sheikh Nor in Mogadishu, Somalia; Michelle Faul and Tom Maliti in Nairobi, Kenya; Ariel David in Rome; Constant Brand in Brussels; Matt Apuzzo and Robert Burns in Washington; Oliver Teves in Manila, Philippines; Pierre-Yves Roger in Paris; and Lisa Rathke, Underhill, Vt.