Lost in the mire of the swine flu cruise blues is an equally noteworthy story: Sunday's failed pirate hijacking of the 35,143-ton, 1,062-passenger MSC Melody, which took place north of the Seychelles and hundreds of miles east of the treacherous waters off Somalia.
New details of the attack have been slowly emerging, with reports that include everything from passengers hurling deck chairs down on assailants to a mysterious caller asking the bridge in broken English for Melody's coordinates. The most intriguing rumor: That it was MSC passengers that first spotted the pirates and took steps to protect themselves and the ship.
So what really happened? Cruise Critic spoke to Rick Sasso, MSC Cruises USA President and CEO, for the facts about this incredible event.
The story begins with a classical music concert under the stars, taking place as the ship sailed north from the Seychelles. By chance, there was an outdoor show that evening (well attended, too -- by hundreds of passengers). Others had headed aft to enjoy some drinks around midnight under a starry Indian Ocean sky. Down below, Captain Ciro Pinto was in a lounge performing his other duty as social host, chatting up two female passengers from South Africa. Ironically, Germany-based news outlet Spiegel reports that the conversation was about pirates -- Pinto assured the women that the ship, which as a precaution had been rerouted hundreds of miles away from the most dangerous area of the Somali coast, would enjoy safe passage. (Sasso confirmed Spiegel's account: "What's [the captain] going to say? 'It's a problem and we should all go to bed now'?")
Back on deck, just minutes after Captain Ciro's conversation, the passengers having drinks by the pool -- as well as two aft-positioned night watchmen -- caught a glimpse of something in the dark: a very fast speed boat was approaching. There were heavily armed men onboard.
In the span of a few minutes, Sasso tells us, "Passengers started to run to tell whatever officer they could find. The watchmen notified the bridge, who notified the captain and security staff."
Not all passengers ran. Australian press first reported several days ago that it was guests who initially deterred attackers by showering deck furniture on the assailants as they tried to scale the ship on rope ladders. Press in the U.K. are crediting Wyn Rowlands, a Welshman celebrating a birthday onboard, as the first to spot the approaching skiffs and hurl a deck chair overboard. Sasso would only say that, indeed, passengers had chucked the loungers, but would not specify who or how many.
It was then that the first shots were fired.
David Cavenagh, a reporter from Australia's Daily Telegraph who was onboard Melody, offered a chilling report written from his darkened stateroom. "We all thought it was firecrackers at first ... An agitated Italian passenger burst into the room. This was a pirate attack, she said. She had seen the pirates from the stern and narrowly avoided the first volley of shots from their AK-47s."
Within two or three minutes of spotting the skiff, MSC Melody employed pirate protocol: All lights were turned out, and passengers were ordered immediately below deck. The captain pulled in the stabilizers to make the ship's wake more severe, and commenced maneuvers, alternately sweeping the vessel in exaggerated movements port and starboard.
Sasso notes one of the most important steps was to put security forces into action. "MSC always has extra well-trained security from a certain Israeli company," Sasso says. "I won't disclose how many, but we've had them onboard our ships for the last 20 years. It's our asset, it's traveling around the world, and it's our security. They're not very visible; they don't wear officer's uniform."
When the pirates initially failed to board at the stern, they decided to speed forward to the bow, spraying bullets at the bridge in an attempt to intimidate the captain into stopping.
But "the captain decided that he was in a better position than them," Sasso tells us. It was then that Captain Pinto decided to dispatch the low caliber pistols being carried onboard in a locked safe. "We're not in the war business," Sasso says. "This is not normal. We don't need guns on ships. We need security. It's non-lethal. It's security by anticipation. You don't need weapons. But in this case, he decided to take pistols and give them to the Israeli security. "
The skiff returned to the stern, where pirates again tried to get close enough to board. While there are reports that the now-armed onboard security shot at the pirates, Sasso tells us otherwise: "They fired seven or eight shots into the air -- they did not fire at the pirates." According to Sasso's account the ship's water hoses were then used, and shortly after, it was over.
"At that point, I think that they realized, 'Look, we picked the wrong ship,'" says Sasso, and the pirates disappeared back into the darkness. Sasso told us that he thinks the whole horrifying ordeal lasted in the range of 15 minutes. Another detail has emerged suggesting that even after pirates pulled away, they hadn't given up. Spiegel Online reported that after the attack, the bridge received a mysterious call: a man speaking in broken English asked the bridge for the ship's coordinates. (Sasso confirmed the call.) Naturally, the captain refused to reveal Melody's location.
An official log report of the incident with time sequences has been disclosed to the proper authorities. We "can't disclose time sequences," says Sasso. "It's confidential."
MSC Cruises initially reported that there were no injuries. But Cavenagh, who spotted the pirates through aft windows, writes, "The only casualty was American John Wright, cut by glass splinters as a bullet passed by his head. He is a very lucky man." Sasso confirmed that there was one passenger injury, plus an additional injury to a crewmember. He wasn't clear on the extent of the injuries or exactly how they were caused, but called both superficial skin wounds that were treated "with alcohol and a bandage."
So how could the pirates possibly go undetected until their skiff was literally a ladder's length from Melody?
Sasso offers some context. "We're in the middle of the night, ship's doing 18 knots, heading north, 180 nautical miles north of Port Victoria in the Seychelles. It's dark out, seas are a little rough, and the only thing lit up is the ship." And, in the rough seas, the pirates' boat was small enough to avoid being picked up by radar.
The attack was unexpected to say the least. MSC Cruises had taken advice from the Maritime Security Center and rerouted the ship well away from the dangerous Somali coast. The new route added 400 miles of steaming to the itinerary and resulted in the cancellation of a port.
Situated outside the most pirate-infested area, Melody was cruising without a naval escort. "When you're 700 miles out, you think you're okay, you don't think you need an escort," Sasso noted.
"If they would have gotten on our ship, we would have said, 'Okay, what do you want?' There'd be no gunfire exchanges or anything like that," Sasso said. But this went the other way. "It was a perfect outcome to an extraordinary coincidence of events." (Note: According to the Associated Press, nine pirates believed to be connected with the attack were later captured.)
It won't be necessary for MSC to consider the hypothetical. The line has rerouted all upcoming cruises previously scheduled to be anywhere near the region. "We're going the long way [around South Africa]," Sasso tells us. "We get advice that 700 miles is enough, and it's not enough? Screw it."
--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor
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