Captain Phillips Movie Hits Close to Home

Nov 12, 2013

John Flood, assistant director of the University of Virginia’s Office of Emergency Preparedness
Credit Dan Addison

The  latest Tom Hanks film, Captain Phillips, opened last month – taking in $26 million in its first weekend at the box office.  Here in Virginia, some people take a special interest in the tale of a U.S. cargo ship from Norfolk captured by pirates off the Somali Coast in 2009 – its captain held hostage. 

Captain Phillips is an action-adventure film, showing how four heavily armed Somali Pirates boarded the Maersk Alabama.  Most of the crew was locked in a safe room, but the captain was taken hostage – removed from the ship and placed on board a lifeboat”

It’s an exciting story, but for John Flood – an FBI agent in charge of crisis negotiation, the mission was to cool tempers and introduce calm. "We’ll slow the situation down, assure the pirates that nobody is there to hurt them.  We want to resolve the situation peacefully, gather more intelligence."

His team contacted the University of Virginia’s toxicology division, for example, to find out how Khat – a drug the pirates were using – would affect their emotional state. 

Flood  didn’t deal directly with the pirates.  Instead, he counseled  the captain of a U.S. Destroyer,  who worked through a translator as he moved his craft into position between the pirates boat and the shore – more than 250 miles away.  “Y’know they had drawn an imaginary line in the water .  They would not allow the vessel to go beyond that because our greatest fear is that if they had allowed Captain Phillips to get on shore, then you lose all control. He’s going into a lawless country, and his fate is less certain.”

They had also decided to take action if the hostage appeared to be in immediate danger, so when, after several days, one of the pirates pointed an AK-47 at Captain Phillips’ back, a Navy seals sharpshooter killed three pirates. A fourth was taken prisoner.  John Flood got the news at church.
“I was at Easter mass at my parish up in Stafford, and sitting in the pew, and the Blackberry goes off, so I stepped into the sacristy, which is the room behind the alter, and the pastor’s looking at me, and I’m waving at him – I’ve got it. And then they notified me that Captain Phillips had been notified, and the pastor lit up.  He made an announcement to the congregation, so they were probably  the first people hear.”

It was a happy ending for Flood – the kind of ending Hollywood loves, but he was frankly surprised when he learned that a major motion picture would be based on the incident.

“Some of the writers came to talk to us.  They wanted the back story on what happened.  It actually kind of surprised us.  What’s there to show?  A guy bobbing around in a lifeboat with a bunch of pirates?”

Then he heard Tom Hanks was at the helm and figured it could be big, but Flood has resisted the urge to see the movie.  He’ll wait ‘til it’s on cable, because – after all – he knows the real story and doubts he’s even in the film.  His character and his real-life role are, he says, too dull for show biz.