Ex-crewmen: Company wouldn't rename targeted ship

AP News
Posted: Nov 19, 2009 8:21 AM

The company that owns the Maersk Alabama, a freighter targeted by pirates twice in seven months, did not heed a request to rename, repaint or reroute the ship after the first attack off the coast of Africa in the spring, former crew members say.

Ex-crewmen John Cronan and Shane Murphy said in separate interviews Wednesday that they feared and anticipated another attack after the ordeal in April when their captain was taken hostage but eventually freed by U.S. Navy SEALs.

The American-flagged ship was targeted again Wednesday, but private security guards thwarted the attempt by firing guns and blaring a high-decibel noise device. The ship is proceeding under American surveillance to its destination on the Kenyan coast.

"Obviously she's a hot target," said Cronan, of suburban Philadelphia. "The bad guys were laying in wait for her."

Cronan and several other crewmen have filed suit in Texas against Maersk Line Ltd. and Waterman Steamship Corp., alleging the companies were negligent in sending the ship into known pirate territory with inadequate protection.

The men are seeking compensation for physical and psychological damage they say they suffered during the spring hijacking, and for loss of income.

Maersk Line Ltd. is based in Norfolk, Va., and has offices and sister companies throughout the world, including Texas and New Jersey. Spokesman Kevin Speers said that Maersk has instituted a layered defense system to stop pirates and that Wednesday's thwarted attack shows it's working.

"What we've tried to do is focus on real measures that are going to provide significant increases in the security of the ship," Speers said. "I don't believe changing the name provides a significant security to the people on the ship."

Officials at Waterman Steamship, a company based in Mobile, Ala., that supplies crew members to Maersk, declined to comment.

The suit was filed by one crew member last month in Houston, with other plaintiffs added this month, because it is the nation's second-biggest port and judges there have a sophisticated understanding of maritime law, said attorney Brian Beckcom, who represents six crew members.

Dennis McElwee, a lawyer for Cronan, said crewmen shared their safety concerns in meetings with Maersk before the ship was attacked in April, but the company did not take sufficient security measures.

Cronan and Murphy were on the Maersk Alabama when pirates hijacked it the first time and took Capt. Richard Phillips, of Underhill, Vt., hostage. Navy SEAL sharpshooters freed Phillips while killing three pirates in a daring nighttime attack.

"Maersk made a conscious decision, despite going into pirate-infested waters, not to provide any meaningful security for its workers," Beckcom said. "Instead they'd just rely on the taxpayers and U.S. military to bail them out after the fact."

Murphy, speaking Wednesday at a news conference at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Bourne, said he told Maersk officials that the Alabama should be renamed, repainted or sent to ply another route because pirates would continue to target it.

"It was my recommendation to take that ship off the run or change the name or do something," said Murphy, of Seekonk, Mass. "Because, honestly, we have to realize that American seamen are not going to be treated like the rest of the world if they're caught."

Cronan recalled that Maersk officials said such changes would require too much paperwork.

After arriving back home in Merion, Pa., Cronan said he turned down an offer to return to the ship with a promotion.

"What about the next crew? We got lucky and we were able to _ all 20 of us _ get home safely," Cronan said. "The next guys might not be so lucky. It's not a matter of if, but when."

On Wednesday, four suspected pirates in a skiff attacked the ship, firing on it with automatic weapons from about 300 yards out before being repelled.

Amy Rochford, sister of current Alabama Capt. Paul Rochford, told The Associated Press from a family home in Barrington, R.I., that relatives are not worried because they know from media reports that the crew is unharmed.

"They're sea dogs. This is what they do," Rochford said. "This is his life."


Associated Press writers Michelle R. Smith in Barrington, R.I., Jay Lindsay in Boston, and Beth DeFalco in Trenton, N.J., contributed to this report.