When Capt. Richard Phillips heard gunshots in the lifeboat in which he was being held captive by three Somali pirates, he thought his captors had begun fighting with each other and was unaware that the shots were coming from Navy SEALs who saved his life.
“I didn't know what happened,” the captain of the Maersk Alabama told NBC News’ Matt Lauer in an exclusive interview, the first he has given since being freed by Navy SEALs in a daring and dangerous rescue.
“I can tell you what I thought happened. But I didn't think it had anything to do with military … I thought it was a disagreement,” Phillips said.
“Between the pirates?” Lauer asked.
“Yeah,” Phillips replied. It was only when he heard an American voice calling to him after the pirates were shot and killed that he realized he’d been saved.
The rescue was over in seconds, he said, although it didn’t feel like that in the hot and reeking lifeboat in which he had spent five days at gunpoint.
“For me it felt like five minutes. It was probably seven, eight seconds. I have no idea. Time was fractured for me. So it felt very long for me. It probably indeed wasn't,” Phillips said.
Phillips had said his mental good-byes to his wife and children, certain he would die at the hands of the pirates who kidnapped him from his ship, the Maersk Alabama, on April 8.
“I didn't think I'd ever get out of that boat,” Phillips told Lauer.
Phillips said he passed his time during his captivity thinking and fighting the oppressive heat inside the lifeboat.
Lauer asked whether he had sufficient food.
“I really wasn't hungry with that heat,” Phillips said. “There was food there, obviously in the lifeboat. They mainly ate that. I wasn't eating that.”
There was fresh water on the boat, but sanitary facilities were minimal.
“So, it got nasty on that boat,” Lauer observed.
“It wasn't pleasant. We were in a small area. So, yeah, it wasn't the most comfortable. It wasn't the Queen Mary,” Phillips replied.
Phillips credited the SEAL sharpshooters who killed the three pirates holding Phillips at gunpoint in an enclosed lifeboat being towed behind a U.S. Navy vessel with saving his life.
“What I said when I came home is true. These SEALs and the Navy did an impossible job,” the captain told Lauer. “They're unbelievable people. We really owe it to the military for what they do day in and day out that we never even hear about.”
During the candid interview, Captain Phillips talked to Lauer about his capture, failed escape attempt and rescue, his physical and emotional state while being held captive, the conditions on the lifeboat, and the decisions he had to make before and during his captivity.
When his ship was boarded by pirates just after midnight on April 8 off the Horn of Africa, Phillips had given himself up as a hostage while his 21 crewmen barricaded themselves in a compartment. The crew was able to take a pirate hostage. The pirates left the ship in a lifeboat with Phillips and agreed to exchange the captain for the pirate. But when the crew sent their hostage over, the pirates kept Phillips captive.
Phillips told Lauer he had a radio in the lifeboat, and the pirates let him communicate with his crew on the Maersk Alabama. He told the crew that he would try to escape if he could.
“At the beginning, I did have radio contact with the Maersk Alabama, and I told them, ‘If you see a splash in the water, it's going to be ‘cause I’m coming.’ I had always expected to escape.”
Phillips made his attempted escape – “underline ‘attempted ” – two days later, jumping out of the lifeboat while his guards were not watching. But he was a mile from help, and the pirates recaptured him.
“I would imagine Rich, that the mood on that lifeboat changed substantially after that escape attempt,” Lauer said.
“I was in deep trouble from day one,” Phillips said, but after the attempt “the atmosphere, the body language, yes, things changed from that point on. Yes they did.”
“They keep a gun on you more often?” Lauer asked.
“There was always a gun on me,” he said.
Feeling certain the standoff would end with his death, Phillips thought about his family.
“Were those comforting thoughts or were those painful thoughts?” Lauer asked.
“It was just settling everything,” Phillips said. “Getting ready to die and just settling everything. You know, saying my last thoughts: Andrea, the kids.”
Phillips said that he was tied up after his escape attempt, but when the SEALs launched their rescue operation, he had some mobility.
“Did you have any warning, any advance notice of what was going to happen?” Lauer asked.
“None at all. I'm glad they did it,” Phillips said.
“What do you remember?” Lauer asked.
“Just being very scared and diving for the bottom of the deck. And just getting as low as I could,” the captain replied. I heard the shots, and I just wanted to get as low as I could. Actually, because [the SEALs] knew where I was, I basically tried to stay in the same place. I was only in two seats the whole time. I didn't want to be moving.”
President Barack Obama had given naval commanders the OK to use lethal force to rescue Phillips, and the guided missile destroyer USS Bainbridge had arrived on the scene. On Easter Sunday, April 12, while one of the four pirates was on the Bainbridge negotiating a solution and one pirate on the lifeboat held an AK-47 to Phillips’ back, three SEAL sharpshooters fired simultaneously from the fantail of the destroyer. They killed the three pirates inside the lifeboat, saving Phillips’ life. The shots were taken from a moving ship on a rolling ocean and were dead accurate.
Phillips, who finally returned home on Friday, April 17, emphasized the enormous difficulty of the task the sharpshooters accomplished: “What they did was impossible.”