NAIROBI, Kenya — The 53-year-old American skipper was in the warm water of the Indian Ocean only a few seconds. Then, one of his Somali captors opened fire, the U.S. destroyer was too far away, and the hostage's swim for freedom was over.
In short order Friday, a three-day-old high seas showdown turned into more than the saga of four pirates in a bobbing lifeboat holding off the power of the U.S. Navy.
The pirates fired their guns, even if only as a warning.
They summoned their pirate brethren to bring in other commandeered ships with hostages, from a variety of nations including the Philippines, Russia and Germany.
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They threatened to kill Capt. Richard Phillips if they were attacked, and that became a very real concern after one hostage and two pirates were killed when the French navy stormed a sailboat held by pirates a few hundred miles away.
The pirates also demanded $2 million for his release, maritime officials said.
The U.S. Navy called reinforcements to the scene several hundred miles off the coast of Somalia, which already was under watch by the destroyer USS Bainbridge — named after William Bainbridge, an American naval officer who fought pirates off the Barbary Coast in the early 19th century.
The crisis that grew out of a thwarted attempt to take over the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama freighter is testing the new Obama administration.
Piracy along the anarchic and impoverished Somali coast, the longest in Africa, has risen in recent years. Somali pirates hold about a dozen ships with more than 200 crew members, according to the International Maritime Bureau, a piracy watchdog group based in Malaysia. The bureau lists 66 attacks since January, not including the Alabama.
Underscoring the high stakes involved, France's navy freed a sailboat seized off Somalia last week by other pirates, but one of the hostages was killed, along with two of the bandits. Three pirates were captured. In Paris, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Jean-Louis Georgelin dismissed the notion that there was any coordination between the French and Americans on the two incidents.
Phillips, of Underhill, Vt., was seized Wednesday after he thwarted the pirates' bid to hijack the Alabama, which was carrying food aid for hungry people in Somalia, Rwanda and Uganda.
Around midnight Friday local time, Phillips jumped off the covered lifeboat where he was being held and began swimming, said Defense Department officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk about sensitive, unfolding operations.
One of the pirates then fired an automatic weapon, the officials said, although it was not clear if shots were fired at Phillips or into the air, and he returned to the lifeboat.
He was in the water only a matter of seconds — not enough time for sailors aboard the Bainbridge to do much to help him, the defense officials said. Because both the lifeboat and the Bainbridge are moving, no swimmers or divers could have been standing by in the water, the officials said.
The Bainbridge stays a minimum of 200 yards away — too far to send its own lifeboat to pick up the captain in just a few seconds, and it has no helicopter on board, they said.
Its sailors were able to see Phillips moving around and talking after his return to the lifeboat, and the Defense Department officials believed he was unharmed.
Tom Coggio, Phillips' brother-in-law, said word of the escape attempt and his captivity has stressed his family.
"Now this is just really taking a toll on all of us," Coggio said in Richmond, Vt.
In a statement from the Maersk Line Ltd. shipping company, Phillips' wife, Andrea, thanked "our neighbors, our community, and the nation for the outpouring of support. ... My husband is a strong man and we will remain strong for him. We ask that you do the same."
A Somali in contact with the pirates holding Phillips said they are trying to link up with colleagues who are holding Russian, German, Filipino and other hostages in ships near the coast. Their goal is to get Phillips to Somalia, where they could hide him in the lawless country and make a rescue difficult, the Somali said.
That would give the pirates a stronger negotiating position to discuss a ransom.
The Somali, who helped negotiate a ransom last year to pirates who seized a Ukrainian ship carrying tanks, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. He said he has talked with a pirate leader in Somalia who helped coordinate the failed effort to seize the Alabama.
He said the pirate leader had been in direct contact with the lifeboat via a satellite phone but lost contact after Phillips' captors threw the phone — and a two-way radio dropped to them by the U.S. Navy — into the ocean, fearing the Americans were somehow sending messages to the captain via the devices. They acted after Phillips' failed escape attempt.