ABU DHABI // Inside the ship's "citadel" safe-room, the 21 terrified crew and three security guards prayed for their lives.
Outside the room, a 10-strong gang of ruthless
tried to smoke them out with suffocating fumes, to burn them out by setting fires, and to blast them out with hand-grenades.
They came close to succeeding. But with only minutes to spare before the hijackers burst in on the exhausted men, elite counter-terrorism forces from the UAE boarded the MV Arillah-I in a daring raid, captured the pirates and rescued the crew.
"We did what we could to stay alive but in the last minute before the pirates were about to enter on us the rescue team came, and we owe them our lives," engineer Mohammed Ismail said.
"The simplest description is that they were monsters, not human beings. They tried everything to get to us," second engineer Mohammed al Saifi said.
"We knew that if we gave up, we sail to Somalia, and if we sail to Somalia probably our families will never see us again," said Adam Zaradzki, the ship's master.
The crew were giving their first accounts of the 30-hour ordeal on the Arabian Sea, as the UAE-owned 37,000-tonne bulk carrier sailed towards Jebel Ali on its way back from Australia.
The drama began on Friday when a ship-wide alarm was sounded as two pirate skiffs were seen approaching the vessel.
The crew expected the pirates to fire covering rounds from one skiff, while boarding the vessel from the other. However, in a surprise move, one of the skiffs circled around the vessel and the pirates boarded from the stern. They were able to scale barbed wire to access the ship.
"We were taken off-guard," said crew member Lukas Raudanbach.
After spotting two pirates at the stern, Mr Ismail and his colleagues went down into the citadel to send signals to nearby military vessels. Mr Ismail was injured when the pirates threw a hand-grenade down the ship's funnel, which connects to the safe-room.
"We were trying to give a signal to close army vessels," he said. "They started shooting at us with Kalashnikovs. They heard us giving signals so they went up on the funnel and threw a hand-grenade. When it reached our floor, it exploded and I got hurt by shrapnel. But now I'm in good health."
The crew began a retreat, first on to the bridge and then below decks into the citadel.
Once inside the safe-room, crew members overrode the bridge controls, maintaining the ship’s course towards Jebel Ali.
With the crew cornered, the pirates tried to break into the citadel to regain control of the ship’s navigation and steer it to where it would be raided and its crew kidnapped.
As the siege began, the crew worked together to defend the entry to the citadel.
“We didn’t imagine they would be this aggressive, that they were criminals and vandals,” said Mahmoud al Hefnawi, the ship’s chief engineer. “We thought, that’s it, it was impossible to get out of it, the fires and the smoke.”
As tears began to well up in his eyes, Mr al Hefnawi said every minute they spent trapped in the citadel “was like torture”.
“They started fires, they burned ropes, and they put burning wood on the fans that were bringing in air,” he said. “They wanted to suffocate us, they wanted to murder us and take control of the ship and take it. They went crazy.”
Mr Raudanbach described the confusion and alarm that gripped the team as they were trapped in the citadel.
“Very low oxygen levels, a lot of smoke, a lot of banging, a lot of running around, a lot of curses, a lot of extra work that we had to do on the spot as it happened, we were all over the place, we were extremely busy for a long time,” he said. “We were really exhausted.”
The crew members had to use every ounce of their ingenuity, and they were resourceful. “Every time they tried something we immediately took steps,” said Mr al Saifi. “For example, the air engineer changed the movement direction of the fan so that instead of pulling the smoke to us, it would direct it back at them.”
Mr al Hefnawi said that, while trapped in the room, the crew realised they shared the same fate, and would have to struggle together.
“Every second you’re defending 24 souls,” he said. “Everyone has to make an effort, either it is over for all of us or we all live, so it’s better to defend ourselves with all means.”
He described a back-and-forth fight to stop the pirates from breaking into the citadel, as they tried to destroy the doors or simply burn them down. But the crew reinforced the doors, and fought the fires with dry powder and fire hoses.
The chief engineer, his voice rising with anger, described the vandalism and the burning of the ship. He said the pirates were like highwaymen, and their actions amounted to deliberate, attempted murder.
“They should not be treated with mercy, they should be made examples of,” he said.
The crew members’ accounts of their ordeal were filmed, and the footage, along with film of damage to the vessel and of Special Forces leading off the arrested pirates, was provided to
by the Armed Forces.
The inside of the citadel was also filmed. Scrawled on a chalkboard is a prayer in Arabic that must have comforted the crew when it seemed their ordeal would never end: “God protect me from them in the way you see fit.”