WASHINGTON — After U.S. Navy SEAL snipers conducted a dramatic rescue in 2009 that freed a cargo ship captain being held by pirates, $30,000 disappeared from a lifeboat, triggering an investigation that questioned the integrity of the commandos.
And military officials, who had said that just three shots were fired, soon learned that number was actually much higher in the killing of the pirates in the now-famous operation.
Those are among the messy details missing from previous accounts of the famous raid, including a new Hollywood version released yesterday starring Tom Hanks.
On April 8, 2009, four armed Somali pirates scurried up the side of a large cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, and took Capt. Richard Phillips and his crew 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 their 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, a gun unexpectedly went off inside the lifeboat, and the SEAL snipers opened fire. Seconds later, one or possibly two SEALs descended the tow rope and boarded the lifeboat, quickly shooting the pirates — one of whom was still alive.
In an interview, Phillips said he didn’t see the SEALs firing inside the 25-foot lifeboat. But he said one of the pirates closest to him was “gasping” and in a “death rattle.” The young pirate had two serious chest wounds, he said. He didn’t see the other two pirates at the other end of the lifeboat.
Attorney Philip L. Weinstein, who represented the surviving pirate later prosecuted in federal court, said his legal team had an expert examine photographs the government provided of the dead Somalis. The expert estimated about 19 rounds had been fired into the bodies, Weinstein said.
“There were clearly not three shots fired,” Weinstein said. “They were riddled with bullets.”
The $30,000 was never recovered.
Nobody was exempt from questioning. Investigators interviewed Capt. Frank J. Michael, the executive officer of the Boxer and among the highest-ranking Navy personnel to enter the lifeboat after Phillips had been saved.
The case was ultimately closed without evidence of wrongdoing.
Kevin Speers, a spokesman for Maersk Line Ltd., said the missing money remains a mystery: “We simply don’t know.”
In the new film “Captain Phillips,” viewers shouldn’t look to the movie for the complete story. It doesn’t depict the aftermath inside the lifeboat or the criminal investigation that followed.
Director Paul Greengrass said the movie wasn’t intended to tackle every twist and turn, but hews to the truth.
Greengrass said he was aware of the shooting that took place inside the lifeboat and grappled with how much bloodshed to depict. In the end, he made narrative judgments, including that the final violence wasn’t necessary. The result was the same: Phillips was saved, and the pirates were killed.
And what happened to the money didn’t concern him.
“Movies are not journalism,” Greengrass said. “Movies are not history.”