As the hot African sun rose over the Gulf of Aden, the 20-person crew of the Maersk Alabama must have thought the morning of April 8 would be just like any other while out at sea. From the captain down to the cook, their mission was clear -- sail the 500-foot cargo ship one step closer to its destination of Mombasa, Kenya, where it would deliver more than $5 million worth of American food aid.
But when you're sailing through one of the most dangerous bodies of water in the world, no day is ordinary.
As the Alabama forged ahead, four men from Somalia -- the virtually lawless, poverty-stricken African nation 400 miles away -- were approaching in a smaller, faster speedboat. Their intent, just like pirates in other eras, was to hijack the ship, steal cargo or perhaps even hold hostages for ransom.
After some struggling, the pirates scaled and shimmied their way up the side and climbed aboard. These were certainly not the "shiver me timbers" pirates of children's adventure books -- they were hardened criminals carrying machine guns.
The crew members had no firearms.
In just the past few years, Somali pirates have pulled off a slew of brazen -- and extremely profitable -- attacks on merchant ships, with more 60 in the few months of 2009 leading up to the Alabama attack, according to news reports.
Since it was the first time in recent history that pirates attacked a U.S. merchant ship, the story got the attention of the global media almost instantly, but few details were initially available about just what was happening on board, leaving the public to wonder:
Are the pirates taking hostages?
Are they shooting crew members?
Can the crew survive without any weapons?
Plan of Action
In Virginia Beach, Va., 8,000 miles away, Susan Lebrato thought it was going to be a typical Wednesday. The human resource director and overseer of the HR department at Maersk Line Limited -- a U.S. flag transportation, ship management and technical-services company, and a subsidiary of AP Moller Maersk -- woke up at her normal time of 5 a.m., got dressed, filled in her daily Sudoku puzzle and popped on the TV news as usual -- a habit she says she developed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In the midst of her routine, she briefly overheard something about a ship in trouble, but the clip ended before she could get more details.
"That couldn't possibly be one of our ships, right?" she thought.
Before she even reached the Maersk offices in downtown Norfolk, Va., Lebrato received an e-mail on her BlackBerry confirming her worst fears: One of her company's ships was, indeed, hijacked.
All morning, Lebrato's co-workers seemed to be checking news on the Internet. Reporters began camping out in the lobby, hoping to get any new information on the story, which soon dominated headlines and cable news channels.
In response, CEO John Reinhart gathered company leaders to create a plan of action, being sure to adhere to the company's five values (see sidebar).
They needed to work with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Defense to rescue the crew. They needed to get information to the families of crew members. They needed effective communication with the media.
Lebrato wondered: Would there be a role for HR in this crisis? She had only been with the 200-employee company since December 2008. (She previously served as the director of human resources for chemical company Ciba Inc. from 2007 to 2008 and as organization effectiveness manager at Hoechst Celanese for nine years.)
Now, facing an event she never would have imagined, her first assignment would be to team up with Kevin Speers, the company's senior director of marketing and communications, as he prepared a press statement. The language needed to be carefully selected, to offer information without putting the crew in any more danger.
Lebrato edited his talking points, then watched Speers perform a dry run, offering comments and suggestions, she says.
Following the news on that shocking first day, Lebrato learned that Capt. Richard Phillips was now being held on a small lifeboat while the USS Bainbridge, a heavily armed, 500-foot Navy destroyer, arrived on the scene. (Later, news broke that Phillips actually offered himself to the pirates as a hostage, in an attempt to save his crew.)
Soon Phillips' photograph appeared on the evening news and in newspapers across the country. The thought of him being held in a lifeboat with four armed pirates was hard for Lebrato to bear, because it not only compromised his safety but also hindered the potential success of the rescue.
"I was concerned that he was separated from the crew because it meant that, potentially, we had less control over the situation," says Lebrato. "But as much as we were concerned about that, we had to remain strong."
Since he was on the Maersk lifeboat, Lebrato and the rest of the folks in Norfolk knew he had access to food and water stashed away onboard. But that would hardly provide solace during such an ordeal.
"He's one of our people, so we don't take that responsibility lightly," she says.
As the circumstances escalated, so did the scene at the Maersk offices in Norfolk. (Although William Allen, senior vice president of group HR for AP Moller Maersk, followed the situation closely from the mother company's headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark, ready to assist if necessary, he left it to Lebrato and other business leaders in Norfolk to handle the incident, according to company representatives.)
Lebrato and the others soon flocked to Conference Room 19 South, otherwise known as "The Situation Room" -- the central hub for the company's response effort, complete with white boards filled with information about the incident and news coming steadily from the room's three TVs.
Lebrato soon found herself working alongside FBI agents and officials from the Department of Defense who had direct phone communication to the Alabama and the USS Bainbridge.
"It was getting very intense," she says, "because now [Capt. Phillips] was isolated in a situation where we had no contact with him directly."
The company also set up a hotline for the families of crew members to call, and Lebrato was tasked with gathering information to answer any questions they might have and feeding that information to call-center operators.
There was one more group eager to find out what was going on: the Maersk Line Limited staff. Lebrato collaborated with the communications team to craft companywide e-mail updating them on the safety of the captain and crew.
It was certainly a juggling act -- following their corporate value of uprightness with workers while at the same time, not saying nearly as much to the media.
"We really did need to be as open as possible with the family members ... but with the press," says Lebrato, "being very responsible with the information [was paramount] because the pirates and their associates watch the same TV the rest of us do."
Lebrato knew the press had been hoping for some new material, so when one reporter asked if he could have some information before the 5 p.m. news, she gathered questions, then sequestered herself in her office and carefully crafted a press release. Every nuance had to be considered. In some instances, she was learning as she went.
"One of the questions I thought was a non-issue was, 'Tell us about the lifeboat,' " she says, but Senior Vice President of Technical Operations Steve Carmel quashed that, telling her that publicizing such information could compromise the rescue.
Maersk is in "continual contact" with the crews' families, her statement read. The company had "direct contact with the crew of the Alabama" and Capt. Phillips had not been harmed, it said.
"Between the time I handed that to [the press] downstairs and the time I got back up to the situation room [on the 20th floor], it was already being read on CNN," says Lebrato.
As tough as it was to switch gears, Lebrato felt good about moving into a communications role, something she had done in the past at other organizations. Besides, Speers had plenty on his plate.
"He had a daunting task in front of him between the number of calls received, requests for interviews ... and ensuring communications for our colleagues on-site, and with our global headquarters in Copenhagen," she says.
"Not to mention that this incident was half a world away, so the time difference really impacted the communications."
Just when Lebrato thought the situation couldn't get any scarier, she got news -- along with the rest of America -- that Capt. Phillips leaped off the back of the lifeboat and tried to swim from his captors. Almost immediately, according to reports, the pirates fired gunshots into the water and air but Phillips was not hit. One of the Somalis jumped in after him, eventually dragging him back to the lifeboat and once again into captivity.
Phillips' gutsy attempt to escape helped Lebrato and the rest of the team -- who had been putting in long hours in the situation room -- continue to stay energized and keep fighting, she says.
"What it did was give an indication to everyone the character and the strength of the [man]," says Lebrato. "His actions were a communication to everybody of his willingness to put himself in a situation that was potentially risky to get off that boat."
After hearing the devastating news about the failed escape attempt, Phillips' wife, Andrea, decided it was now appropriate for her to issue a press statement, even though media had been outside her Underhill, Vt., home for days.
But Andrea had never dealt with anything like this before. She wanted help. Reinhart called on Lebrato to craft the statement.
How does one write a press release for a woman in danger of losing her husband? Lebrato wondered.
It turned out to be the most difficult and emotional assignment to date in her burgeoning career. To tackle her task, Lebrato put herself in Andrea Phillips' shoes, imagining what her thoughts might be.
Will I ever even see my husband again?
Is he getting tortured?
Will my children ever see their father again?
The thought of it -- even months later -- brings Lebrato to tears.
"[Her] husband's in the equivalent of something that looks like a submarine with four armed men," Lebrato says slowly, working hard to keep from crying, "and by that point, he had already tried to escape ... . I had to consider what was also going through the mind of Captain Phillips and the type of person that he must be to have taken such an action -- [not to mention volunteering to go] on that lifeboat in the first place."
She summoned the strength she needed, wrote the statement, then spoke to Andrea over the phone. After some initial conversation, Lebrato read to her the words that millions would soon be clinging to over radio and air waves:
"My family and I would like to thank our neighbors, our community and the nation for the outpouring of support that we've been getting. We have felt the compassion of the world through your concern for Richard. My husband is a strong man and we will remain strong for him. We ask that you do the same."
There was some initial silence, then evidence that Mrs. Phillips was deeply touched.
"When I read it to her she was obviously moved and I asked her if she wanted to make any changes," says Lebrato. "She said, 'No, it was perfect.'"
From Helplessness to a Happy Easter
Later that night, Lebrato made a four-hour trek to Ashburn, Va., where she is enrolled in a doctorate program at George Washington University. Traveling along a dark, lonely road in the silence of her car, she began to realize just how long Phillips had been imprisoned. The gravity of the situation began to take hold.
"When you're [at work] and you're in the middle of the situation, you feel like you can do something," she says. "When you're not, when you're away, you feel helpless."
To get some perspective, she spent more than an hour on the phone with a friend of hers, a captain in the Navy.
"He talked me through my concerns and what the Navy would likely be considering and perhaps that it was to our advantage that [Phillips] was being held a little bit longer," she says, because the pirates had plenty to worry about between the warship and the captain trying to escape.
"He assured me the captain was going to be in very good hands with the Navy being so close by," she says. "After an hour of conversation, I felt better."
Lebrato was supposed to be spending Easter Sunday around a dinner table with her family in New Jersey, but Reinhart asked her to come into the office to help with the crisis instead. She eagerly obliged.
Her task that Sunday was an optimistic one, scouting out venues for a press conference if Phillips was eventually freed. On her way back into the office, she ran into Reinhart, who had taken a quick break to have an Easter lunch with his wife and son. He looked excited.
"He saw us coming back up the street and he ran out and said he had just received a call questioning [whether] there might have been a rescue attempt," says Lebrato.
So the team that had worked so diligently for so many days hustled quickly into the situation room and called the sailors on the Bainbridge.
"They might have had us on hold for five seconds," says Lebrato, "but it seemed like a lifetime before they came back and said, 'Yes, we can confirm the captain's been released.' "
Navy sharpshooters shot and killed the pirates. He was free. The saga had finally ended.
"Personally, I was so elated," she says. "We were just thrilled. We were all just hugging one another."
Although the situation was over and the crew was safe, Lebrato's work was hardly finished. She was integral in reuniting the crew and families at Andrews Air Force Base a few miles outside Washington. Phillips would return days later.
Lebrato met with family members for dinner in Washington to help prepare them before their loved ones got off the plane, expressing gratitude for their strength and resolve during the incident, she says. The crew arrived home after midnight, but who could be too tired for an event like that.
"John made a welcome speech at Andrews. We had a glass of champagne and we quickly got all families reunited and back to the hotel," she says. "The children were so thrilled to have their fathers back home. Many happy faces, lots of hugs and long embraces."
Months later, Lebrato, Reinhart and other company leaders finally met Phillips at an industry dinner in New York. "I really thought I was out there all by myself and it's amazing how wrong I was in that regard," says Phillips.
The captain says he was grateful that the company sent representatives to his home to spend time with his wife -- as well as providing him some paid time off to be with his family after the incident.
"They supported my wife and family," he says. "They had it harder than me -- I knew where I was and what I was going through and they had no idea. Sometimes, the imagination is worse than the reality."
Looking back on the incident, Reinhart says, Lebrato was so successful because of her ability to take on problems outside her normal realm.
"HR has to be able to support you quickly and effectively. ... When you go through a crisis, there are evolutions," he says.
"We needed people like Sue and others to help quickly address an issue and go take care of that issue while we were dealing with other parts of the operational risk, the military risk or some of the other security risks."
Michelle Lewis-Blossman, a principal with Mercer in Houston, says no matter the business and no matter the industry, a crisis of some kind will always rear its ugly head. The more human resource leaders and practitioners expect it to happen, the more prepared they will be when it does.
Before joining Mercer, Lewis-Blossman worked at another consultancy, advising a New Orleans school district after Hurricane Katrina. Even before a crisis hits, she says, HR should know its role. Is it going to be dealing with the crisis itself? Dealing with the constituencies and communications surrounding the crisis? Both?
Whatever the answer, its practitioners must focus on being open and available to employees.
"In a crisis, your employees become almost like your family," says Lewis-Blossman. "You can't not take a phone call because it's [late at night]."
When HR leaders set up communications -- much like the hotlines for families set up at Maersk Line Limited -- they should be focusing on gathering information, not just administering it. That way, she says, company officials can evaluate their own next steps.
Above all, she says, HR professionals must be able to adapt -- fast.
While Capt. Phillips and the rest of the crew enjoy some much-needed rest and relaxation with their families, and the politicians and pundits debate anti-piracy measures such as arming crew members or fortifying the outside of ships, Sue Lebrato's work life slowly goes back to normal -- after playing catch-up, of course.
She continues working on organizational development and employee relations, all with a Maersk Alabama baseball cap displayed proudly in her office -- a constant reminder of the employees' lives that were saved.
"It feels quite good to not be operating at the crisis mode," she says. "The fact that the story ended the way it did was just wonderful. We couldn't have asked for a happier ending."