The fate of the four Americans held by pirates on their yacht off Somalia ended in tragedy today as all four perished at the hands of their captors, Navy officials say. “This did not end the way we wanted it to,” says a Navy official. “After we’d be talking to the pirates for four days we were hoping for a better ending.”
Vice Adm. Mark Fox will soon brief from Bahrain on the case, but early word is that the pirates may have been spooked by the close approach of a U.S. warship shortly after dawn Wednesday. The USS Sterett came within “several hundred” yards of the yacht Quest, which was owned by Jean and Scott Adam and also carrying friends Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle. A Navy official, speaking privately, suggested the Sterett had to get closer to the Quest as the radio batteries on the Quest began running out. There was no explanation as to why this approach should have alarmed the pirates aboard the Quest if they had been told in advance that the warship was going to come closer to maintain their radio link.
As the 500-foot destroyer drew closer to the 58-foot yacht, “they heard shots and an RPG was fired at the Sterett” from the yacht, a Navy official says. By the time sailors boarded the yacht, the four Americans had been mortally wounded, as had two pirates, apparently by their fellow pirates. “Those two may have wanted to surrender — we just don’t know yet,” he says.
Fox later told reporters that the Navy vessels involved in shadowing the Quest in recent days, in additional to the Sterett, were the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, the guided-missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf and the guided-missile destroyer USS Bulkeley. Two pirates from the Quest had boarded the Sterett Monday as negotiations intensified, Fox said.
After a flurry of gunfire was heard from the Quest, “several pirates appeared on the deck of the Quest and moved up to the bow with their hands in the air in surrender,” Fox said. U.S. commandos then boarded the yacht from their small launches, and killed two pirates as they cleared the vessel — one with a pistol and the second in a knife fight. “The loss of our fellow Americans,” Fox said from Bahrain, “is a tragedy.”
Fox, the Navy chief for U.S. Central Command, discussed the challenge of dealing with pirates just last month. “Up until this point we have been taking what I would refer to as the Western mindset of dealing with hijackers or pre-9/11 the way we dealt with a hijacker was hey, let’s make sure everybody’s okay. A great deal of focus, and appropriately so, on the safety of the crew and of the hostages,” he said over breakfast Jan. 27. “That’s been our approach because we’ve been very concerned. It’s very difficult to ensure the safety of the hostages when you have a pirate situation.”
After the 2009 rescue of hostage Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama held by Somali pirates — all three were killed by a volley of shots fired by Navy SEAL snipers — Wednesday’s deaths are a harsh reminder of how quickly things can head south. A total of 15 of the pirates are now in custody aboard the Enterprise. “There is going to be an investigation into what happened,” the Navy official says. “There will be a lot of second-guessing.”