MUMBAI, India (AP) — The alarm sounded at 6:40 a.m. It could have been a fire or a man overboard. But in the waters off the coast of Oman near the Gulf of Aden, the sound meant one thing to the crew of the Enrica Ievoli: pirates.
The ship was carrying 15,000 tons of caustic soda from Iran to Turkey when it was hijacked by Somali pirates, who held the 18-man crew hostage for four long months.
The seven Indian crew members on board the Italian ship landed in Mumbai on Tuesday.
This account of their capture and release is based on interviews with five crew members and two shipping company officials.
Roopendran Parrakat, 51, had been watching the unidentified boat since he came on duty shortly before 6 a.m. on Dec. 27. He and two other crew members took turns peering through binoculars at the vessel, which showed up on the Enrica Ievoli's radar as an ominous blip moving far too fast toward their ship.
"Normally, you get GPS data," Parrakat said. "This vessel had no details, no name, nothing."
Forty minutes later the captain sounded the alarm, jolting Shantilal Harji Solanki awake.
"I had a feeling pirates were around," said Solanki, 52, who worked as a mechanic on the ship.
He stashed his gold prayer beads in an air conditioning duct before heading up to the ship's bridge, the designated meeting point in case of emergency.
The captain told the assembled crew that pirates were approaching.
The next hour unfolded in slow motion. A skiff set out from the pirate's mother ship.
The crew watched from the bridge as four men in shorts and T-shirts hoisted a ladder and climbed on board. Two carried AK-47s. They fired shots in the air and called themselves pirates. They said they were from Somalia.
The pirates came up to the bridge and trained their guns on the captain. "They said this boat is hijacked," recalled Solanki. One of the gunmen was shaking. Another man was bleeding, cut on the hand and shoulder by the barbed wire the crew had wrapped around the ship to stave off pirates before entering the dangerous waters. Five more Somalis soon climbed on board. The youngest was 14, the oldest in his fifties.
The leader carried a pistol. He was perhaps 55, thin, with a gentle way of talking. He didn't seem dangerous. The men called him Maya.
Maya told the crew he didn't want to harm them, that there would be no killing if they got money.
"The leader told us we are hijacking this vessel for money," said Parrakat. "We need this money for our country. We are doing this for our country."
Maybe if they'd cut the power, darkened the boat and locked themselves in some hidden room they could have escaped, one member of the crew said. If they'd only had an armed guard on board, none of this would have happened, others said.
A helicopter flown in by the Turkish navy in response to the captain's distress call arrived 20 minutes too late.
The pirates held the crew in the ship's bridge, a vast room encased in glass at the top of the ship which offered 360 degree views of the surrounding ocean. Half the men got mattresses, the rest slept on blankets. They had to ask permission to go to the bathroom or take a shower. Pirates always escorted them, one man at a time. Photographs were forbidden.
The pirates led the crew — seven Indians, six Italians and five Ukrainians — one by one to their cabins and took anything that could be sold.
They stole Solanki's two laptop computers, one of which he'd just bought for his daughter, two cellphones, his watch, his leather shoes and all his money.
After a few days, the ship reached Somali waters and the men were allowed to call home.