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Park Rapids alums take part in captain's rescue from pirates

Luke Potter, left, and Doug Safratowich are members of the USS Bainbridge crew that rescued ship captain Richard Phillips. (Submitted photo)

When Somali pirates hijacked the U.S. cargo ship Maersk Alabama and took its American captain hostage, the Navy destroyer USS Bainbridge arrived on the scene, with Park Rapids alumni Luke Potter (1999) and Doug Safratowich (1995) among the crew members.

The USS Bainbridge was 300 miles away at the time of the Wednesday, April 8 attack, arriving the next morning.

"It came together flawlessly, despite working on the fly," Operations Specialist 1st Class Potter said of rescuing Maersk Alabama ship captain Richard Phillips from pirates holding him hostage on a drifting lifeboat. "Everyone was elated. We won the good versus evil battle."

Potter joined the ship's crew in August 2007. His watch station is Surface Warfare Coordinator and he is responsible to the Commanding Officer for Surface Warfare. He uses a "5-inch gun" and SM-2 (surface to surface/surface to air missile) for engagements during any surface contacts - such as hostile warships or pirates.

"I kept an eye on the captain and the pirates," he said of the optical sighting system on the gun. "I was staring at him for hours" during the rescue in the Indian Ocean.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Safratowich was among the 18 crew members who boarded the Maersk Alabama after the captain was taken hostage. Their mission was to escort the ship to Kenya, which the father of four describes as "possibly the most trying experience of my life.

"Once the ship left the area," he explained, "we knew we were still a target. It kept us all on our toes..."

Phillips was a part of a 20-man crew on a 508-foot container ship carrying food aid to Mombasa in Kenya. Pirates had harassed the unarmed crew for a week before the vessel was boarded approximately 300 miles from the Somali coast.

The attack was the first pirate seizure of a U.S. merchant vessel since the North African Barbary Wars two centuries ago.

Maersk Alabama crewmembers captured one of the four pirates. Meanwhile, the pirate skiff sunk and Phillips talked the pirates into leaving in a lifeboat, agreeing to board it to show them how it worked. But the captured pirate jumped into the lifeboat with the others and Phillips became a hostage.

As the Bainbridge stalked the lifeboat, Phillips tried to escape by jumping into the sea and swimming toward the warship. But before Navy crewmembers could react, the pirates fired shots, leapt in after him and recaptured him.

"We were an armed warship with guided missiles, but we felt helpless," Potter said of the hostage situation that spanned four days.

Hostage situations, he explained, are not part of their training. The Bainbridge captain, Commander Frank Castellano, sought hostage negotiation tutelage from the FBI during the process, he said. The rest of the crew was cut off from communication as part of operational security.

Friday night, April 10, President Obama authorized lethal force. Navy Seals arrived Saturday night, dropped by parachute into the sea close to the Bainbridge after dark.

Captain Phillips was rescued Sunday, after the pirates were "neutralized." Phillips was brought on board the Bainbridge.

"He's a great guy." Potter said of Phillips, with whom he conversed for several minutes.

"The Bainbridge is proud of the Maersk Alabama," Potter said of the unarmed crew who fought the pirates.

"They were a great group of guys," Safratowich agreed. "Very cordial. Some of the best I've worked with."

While aboard the Maersk Alabama, he said he consumed "some of the best food I've ever eaten."

After a medical evaluation, Phillips was scheduled to return to the U.S., but his departure was delayed 24 hours when the Bainbridge was diverted to thwart another attempted piracy of the Liberty Sun, a U.S. cargo ship.

Phillips was greeted by a swarm of reporters on the pier.

And Safratowich rejoined his shipmates on the Bainbridge.

This, Potter said, is his sixth deployment, his first search and rescue mission. The Virginia Beach resident and wife Keri (Mitchell) have a three-year-old daughter, Aileen.

His parents are Ronald Potter and Trudy Flowers. Eric Potter (class of '89) has orders to report for duty on the Bainbridge in July.

"Our captain, CDR, Frank Castellano, really demonstrated the virtues of Command at Sea," Potter told friends and family in an April 14 e-mail. "He was personally responsible for a successful operation. He fielded calls on behalf of the crew yesterday from the President of the United States, Chief of Naval Operations and Secretary of Defense...."

Potter expressed gratitude to the other forces assisting in the rescue. "Bringing Captain Phillips home safely and the pirates to justice was truly an Easter Sunday miracle," he said.

"It was a trying experience," Safratowich said Monday.

"Thank God I had pictures of my wife and kids," he said of Stacey and their children who live in Maryland. "It definitely helped me get through it."

"It keeps a person sharp when you have something to live for," the son of Joe and Sherry Safratowich said.