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Ship's captain prepared for pirate attack, ex-crew member says

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  • Phillips is type to sacrifice his well-being for others, ex-crew member says
  • Ex-crew member was on vacation when pirates took Maersk Alabama on Wednesday
  • Phillips "took every precaution" against attack, he says
  • Slow-moving container ship made tempting target, crew member says
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By Mallory Simon
CNN
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(CNN) -- A former crew member on the American ship attacked by pirates off Africa said the ship's captain is exactly the kind of person who would offer himself in exchange for the crew's safety.

Attackers hijacked the Maersk Alabama, shown here, formerly known as the Alva Maersk.

Capt. Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama is being held by pirates on a lifeboat off Somalia.

"I was amazed when I heard that he offered himself up to the pirates, but he's definitely the kind of person to make that sacrifice," the former crew member of the Maersk Alabama, who asked not to be identified, said of Capt. Richard Phillips.

The man woke early Wednesday, checked the news online and saw that an American ship had been hijacked.

"I immediately got a pit in my stomach," he said. "There are not too many American vessels out there, so I was worried I knew who it was. Sure enough, I did.

"I was very upset that morning, because those are great guys, and it wasn't that long ago that I was out on the waters with them."

All of the Alabama's crew except the captain was aboard the container ship Friday en route to Mombasa, Kenya.

Phillips was being held in one of the Alabama's lifeboats Friday by the four pirates who attacked the container ship Wednesday. The crew tried to obtain Phillips' release Wednesday in exchange for a pirate they held, but the pirates did not come through on their end of the deal.

Late Thursday, Phillips jumped from the lifeboat in an escape attempt but was pulled back aboard by his captors, the U.S. military said. Video Watch how captain tried to escape pirates »

The USS Bainbridge, a Navy guided-missile destroyer, was nearby, with people aboard trying to negotiate for Phillips' release.

Those aboard the container ship are a tight-knit bunch, the former crew member said, spending months together with only rare contact with the outside world. He served on the vessel for about 100 days.

"I was just imaging how awful they felt when this happened," the former crew member said. "They must have been terrified, because you appreciate the risk of it happening, but you really don't picture it every actually happening." Video Watch what it's like to suffer pirate attack »

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"We don't really spend every day thinking about pirates being out there, but we were very aware of the threat," he said.

Each week, Phillips scheduled "pretty intensive" drills to keep the crew prepared for pirate attacks, the former crew member said.

Phillips "took every precaution," he said, and always kept the crew posted and informed. The captain asked engineers to install deadbolts on some of the doors for extra protection, he said.

When an attack is occurring, crew members are taught to begin locking down every possible door and any possible entrance for pirates to gain access to the ship, the man said.

Passwords are set so crew members locked out can regain entrance or alert others inside if they are under duress or if a pirate is with them.

"They also tell you if you are in your room not to open the door under any circumstance," he said.

The crew was trained to be compliant if they couldn't prevent the pirates from coming on board, he said.

"They tell you, don't try and be a hero and take back the ship, that the pirates want us alive, because we are their business, and if you fight back, it can get dangerous because they are so heavily armed," the crew member said.

During his stint on the ship, the man said, he never had any direct contact with pirates, but he's passed vessels that only a few hours later were attacked by pirates, sometimes unsuccessfully.

Sometimes crew members heard distress calls from other boats being attacked.

Those in charge of the radios "did tell us one time how they heard ships under attack," he said. "They said they hear them screaming for help and that they could even hear the gunfire over the radio."

The crew member also said companies are adjusting routes because of the recent pirate attacks. He said one time the Maersk Alabama was 250 nautical miles from shore, but the vessel's insurers mandated a move to 300 nautical miles out. Video Watch where pirate attacks occur »

"It was basically too expensive [to be close to the Somalia coast], specifically because of the pirates," he said. "They say, 'if we are going to insure your vessel, you are going to need to be a lot farther from shore.' "

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He also said that because his ship is slow-moving, it's also more vulnerable to attack.

"We did recognize that, that we were a slower ship, so it was a perfect opportunity," he said. "But we also know they aren't specifically targeting ships, that a lot of times it's a matter of just being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

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