Union crew avoids pirate takeover, but ships captain held hostage

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A U.S.-flagged and crewed merchant ship carrying food relief supplies to Kenya was boarded by Somali pirates earlier today some 350 miles off the African coast. According to the latest news reports, the crew has regained control of the ship, the Maersk Alabama, and the pirates have left but they are holding the captain hostage.

Twelve members of the 20-person crew are members of the Seafarers (SIU) and the ship’s officers are members of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (MEBA) and Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P).

When the pirates, armed with AK-47s, boarded the 730-foot vessel, the unarmed crew locked themselves in an area of the ship that contains the ship’s steering gear, second officer Ken Quinn told CNN in a ship-to-shore phone call.

He said the crew had captured one of the pirates and, in negotiations with remaining pirates, agreed to exchange him for the release of the ship’s captain. But after the captured Somali was released, the pirates continued to hold the captain as of 4 p.m. EDT.

In a statement late this afternoon, Maersk Lines says:

The armed hijackers who boarded this ship earlier today have departed, however they are currently holding one member of the ship’s crew as a hostage. The other members of the crew are safe and no injuries have been reported. Our primary concern is for the safe return of the individual still being held.

News reports say a U.S warship is still several hours away.

In statement, the SIU says:

Our thoughts and prayers are with the crew members, officers and their families. A toll-free phone number is being established for family members of the SIU crew and officers currently aboard the ship. Family members will be contacted as soon as possible with that number, the “Maersk Alabama Assistance Line.”

The SIU members aboard the Maersk Alabama have undergone safety training at the union-affiliated Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education, which is located in Piney Point, Md.

Among the school’s course offerings are an anti-terrorism briefing that is given to every student; security awareness; vessel security officer; basic and advanced fire fighting; chemical, biological and radiological defense; vessel familiarization; small-arms training; damage control; and dozens more classes.