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Reflecting on Captivity

Reflecting on Captivity | Human Resource Executive Online After being held hostage by pirates for five days, Capt. Richard Phillips talks about his brush with death and proposes safety regulations for cargo ships.

Saturday, August 1, 2009
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Few have lived to tell a tale as harrowing as Capt. Richard Phillips has.

While piloting the Maersk Alabama -- a 500-foot cargo ship loaded with American food aid for Kenya -- Phillips and his 20-person crew were attacked by Somali pirates who boarded the ship and held them hostage.

The pirates were armed with machine guns, while the crew had only knives from the kitchen and some makeshift weapons.

In an effort to spare his crew, Phillips volunteered to be a hostage and was transferred to one of the Alabama's small lifeboats for five days -- staring into the faces of his captors while doing his best to think about his wife Andrea and their two college-aged children.

"They [his family] had it harder than me, I knew where I was and what I was going through and they had no idea and sometimes the imagination is worse than the reality," said the 53-year-old Phillips in his thick New England accent after receiving the International Christian Maritime Association's "Courage at Sea Award" at a ceremony in New York in April.

One night during his captivity, Phillips tried to escape the lifeboat. The pirates shot into the air and water but did not hit Phillips; however, they were able to drag him back to the ship. On Easter Sunday, U.S. Navy snipers on a nearby warship shot the pirates and set Phillips free.

During the incident, another crew -- the company leaders at Maersk Line Limited in Norfolk, Va. -- did all they could to help, working closely with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Defense to gather information. They even sent employees to be with the Phillips family, helping them cope with the situation, deal with the press camped out outside their Vermont home and handle day-to-day life.

"We aren't used to this media circus and what it entails -- the phone calls, screening the mail. It's all different for us," Phillips says. His company "helped very much in that regard with psychological support, informational support and logistics because you've still got to live. You've still got to get milk and bread and toilet paper."

After Phillips was saved, the company made sure to let him know that going home to be with his family should be his only priority.

"They stressed how important it is to get home, to not worry about work," he says. "They replaced me and the crew without asking. They gave us extra remuneration without being asked for it and they gave us time to be with our families. After an ordeal like that, it's very important."

Andrea Phillips says it gave her piece of mind throughout the incident to have Maersk employees at her home, and to have received phone calls from CEO John Reinhart, HR Director Sue Lebrato and others.

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"It made me feel like I was connected -- that these people were talking to the people that were at the forefront of assuring Richard's safety," she says. "Knowing that made me feel good, made me feel comfortable and confident that he was going to pull through it."

With piracy running rampant in the waters outside of Somalia, Phillips says big changes should come to maritime safety. The big question -- and one he got asked repeatedly during congressional hearings soon after the incident -- concerns carrying firearms on the ships.

At the awards ceremony in New York, he said that crews should be armed with weapons, and he endorsed placing members of the armed forces on the boats for protection.

He also advocated hardening the outsides of ships to make them tougher for pirates to climb aboard and adding ventilated safe rooms on board containing food, water and a communication system.

Since the ordeal, Richard and Andrea have held press conferences. They appeared on the Today show. They even met with President Barack Obama at the White House.

Andrea says she's ready for things to calm down.

"I have my garden to get back and tend to," she says.

Even after suffering through such a trying ordeal, Capt. Phillips has no plans to quit -- or even take a break -- from his job. He plans to go on another three-month mission in September.

Andrea supports that decision.

"I am totally fine with it. It's a part of who he is and it's a part of who we are," she says. "I know he loves the ocean and he's good at what he does, obviously."

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