Captain Phillips: The true story behind the dramatic rescue

WASHINGTON— Dramatic accounts of the Navy SEALs rescuing the captain of an American cargo ship made headlines around the world in 2009. The military said SEAL snipers killed a trio of pirates in a tense standoff. Three shots, three kills. It was the lethal, coordinated precision that has made SEALs famous and feared.

Hanks shines in Phillips: Review

It was an unbelievable story, with a new retelling that hits the big screen Friday with Tom Hanks playing Capt. Richard Phillips. But the official version that unfolded in the Indian Ocean wasn’t as tidy as Hollywood’s, or the versions in Phillips’ own book or in contemporaneous news reports. In fact, many more than three shots were fired, $30,000 went missing and the integrity of the SEALs was questioned.

The unvarnished story begins on April 8, 2009. Four armed Somali pirates scurried up the side of a large cargo ship, Maersk Alabama, and took the crew and Phillips hostage. In a failed attempt to get the pirates to leave, Phillips gave them $30,000 from the ship safe. The pirates eventually abandoned the Maersk, jumping into a lifeboat and taking the cash and Phillips at gunpoint.

The USS Bainbridge, a destroyer that had responded to the hijacking, gave chase as the pirates headed toward the Somali coast. Days later, a team of SEALs parachuted into the Indian Ocean and boarded the Bainbridge. During the crisis, the Navy persuaded the pirates to let the Bainbridge tow the lifeboat and then tricked the fourth pirate into coming aboard the Bainbridge.

As the Bainbridge reeled in the lifeboat for a better shot, the SEALs took up positions on the back of the warship and trained their sights on the three pirates.

On April 12, the SEALs acted. After a gun unexpectedly went off inside the lifeboat, the SEAL snipers opened fire. Seconds later, a SEAL, possibly two of them, descended the tow rope and onto the lifeboat. He quickly shot the pirates — one of whom was still alive. Former SEAL Matt Bissonnette recounted the episode in his memoir No Easy Day. Bissonnette was deployed aboard the adjacent USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship, when the rescue took place.

“Entering the life raft, they quickly and methodically re-engaged each pirate, making sure there was no more threat,” Bissonnette recalls. “They found Phillips tied up in the corner unhurt.”