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Hero skipper ignored pirate warnings, crew says

By Drew Griffin and David Fitzpatrick, CNN Special Investigations Unit
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Captain of Maersk Alabama ignored warnings, 16 of 19 crew members say
  • Capt. Richard Phillips became hero after pirate capture, rescue in April 2009
  • Chief engineer retrieved e-mails warning ships to stay well off Somalia
  • Phillips says crew's claims are tied to a lawsuit against Maersk shipping line

See why the crew of the Maersk Alabama says their captain may have put the ship in harm's way off the Somalia coast on tonight's "AC360" 10 p.m. ET

RIVERVIEW, Florida (CNN) -- The captain of the container ship Maersk Alabama ignored explicit warnings to stay well off the coast of Somalia before his capture by pirates in 2009, according to 16 of its 19 crew members.

"It's almost like he wanted to be captured," the ship's chief engineer, Mike Perry, told CNN in an interview to air on tonight's "AC360."

Capt. Richard Phillips spent four days as a hostage after the attempted seizure of the Maersk Alabama. After his rescue by U.S. Navy SEAL commandos, Phillips was lauded as a hero, and the publisher of his new book promoted him as a sea captain who risked his life by offering himself as a hostage "in exchange for the safety of the crew."

The 16 crew members have been far less public about the events, even as Phillips toured the country this spring to promote his book, "A Captain's Duty." But now they are telling a different version of what took place in the waters off the Somali coast in early April 2009.

Perry, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, was the chief engineer aboard the Alabama as it sailed from Oman, in the Persian Gulf, to Mombasa, Kenya, with a cargo of relief supplies. He told CNN Correspondent Drew Griffin that Phillips' decision "certainly warrants an investigation."

"I just want an investigation, for this to be looked at properly before that man winds up going back to sea on another ship and endangering somebody," Perry said.

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Perry said he sailed on the Alabama after the pirate incident and retrieved e-mail warnings -- seven in all -- that urged the Alabama and other ships in the area to stay clear of the Somali coast and sail 600 miles away if necessary to avoid pirate attacks.

Another former crew member, third engineer John Cronan, told CNN that Phillips "was advised to change course by competent deck officers and he overruled them."

"Stay on course, make our ETA, stay on the same course," Cronan quoted Phillips as saying.

For his part, Phillips said his preparations went beyond the industry standard for safety. He said the crew's version of events is linked to a suit filed against the Danish shipping line Maersk, which owns the Alabama. So far, six former crew members, not including Perry, have filed suit, claiming the company "knowingly sent their employees into pirate-infested waters, rather than taking safer routes."

"We live in a litigious society," Phillips said. "So I can't really talk about what their complaint is. Their complaint is with the company, so it's not my place."

Maersk has no comment on the lawsuit, the company told CNN.

According to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, the Alabama was attacked about 380 miles off the Somali coast. Most of the e-mail warnings were sent by a private maritime security agency called Securewest International and were directed at all ships in the area, though one was specifically sent to Phillips.

Each e-mail was based on information from British and U.S. naval authorities and urged the Alabama to stay clear of the shipping lanes where Phillips was heading.

"Vessels should consider maintaining a distance of more than 600 nautical miles from the Somali coastline," one of the Securewest messages advised.

Phillips acknowledged the existence of those e-mails, but said he could not respond to the accusations because of the lawsuit.

Another crew member, Abu Tahir Mohammed Reza -- who goes by the initials "ATM" -- told CNN that he was on the Alabama's bridge when the Somali pirates began their attack. He said he spotted the pirates about three miles behind and to the right of the container ship and said Phillips "laughed at me" and "ignored me completely" when he reported the fast ship attack.

Phillips disputed that account, saying he did not ignore any first warnings.

"I'm not someone who laughs a lot. Ask my crew, do I laugh a lot and tell jokes? I think the majority will say no," he said.

Phillips conceded, however, that in his book that he erred in identifying Reza as a Pakistani -- the sailor is from Bangladesh -- and that he was also wrong in writing that Reza gained U.S. citizenship via a lottery. And he said the real heroes are the Navy SEALs and his crew, whom he says stayed calm, followed orders and instincts and prevented a tragedy.

"They did a wonderful job," he said. "It's in the book. Everywhere I speak, I say what a great job they did."

As for the widely repeated notion that he gave himself up to the Somali pirates in exchange for the safety of his crew, Captain Phillips told CNN "the media got everything wrong."

"I didn't give myself up," he said. "I was already a hostage by then."

He added, "I think you're forgetting they had guns."

Sailors aboard the destroyer USS Bainbridge killed three of the four pirates who held Phillips and captured the fourth, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse. Muse pleaded guilty last week to charges he hijacked the Alabama and kidnapped the captain, and he faces a maximum sentence of almost 34 years behind bars.

The crew members who allege Phillips ignored warnings about Somali pirate attacks have created a Facebook page, "Alabama Shipmates." Perry said none initially wanted to go public with their assertions, but decided to do so as a group after the publication of Phillips' book in April.

"We vowed we were gonna take it to our graves," he told CNN. "We weren't going to say anything. Then we hear this PR stuff coming out about giving himself up and he's still hostage, and the whole crew is like, 'What?' "

Perry told CNN the crew had heard numerous international radio broadcasts declaring Phillips had exchanged himself for the safety of the crew.

When told that many of his crew feel slighted by him, Phillips said, "There's not much I can say."

"The media made everything out to be me," he said. "But that's the media. When I came home, I really didn't go and put myself in front of the media. A lot of my crew did. I didn't."

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