HOUSTON -- A member of the crew on the US-flagged ship hijacked by African pirates sued the owner and another company Monday, accusing them of knowingly putting sailors in danger.
Richard E. Hicks alleges in the suit that owner Maersk Line Limited and Waterman Steamship Corp., which provided the crew, ignored requests to improve safety measures for vessels sailing along the Somali coast.
Richard E. Hicks, the chief cook on board the Maersk Alabama, speaks after filing a lawsuit Monday, April 27, 2009 in Houston. [Agencies]
Hicks was chief cook on the Maersk Alabama. Pirates held the ship's captain hostage for five days until the US Navy rescued him.
Hicks' lawsuit seeks at least $75,000 in damages and improved safety.
Officials for Norfolk, Va.-based Maersk Line and Mobile, Ala.-based Waterman said their companies don't comment on pending litigation.
Hicks asked that the two companies improve safety for ships by providing armed security or allowing crew members to carry weapons, sending ships through safer routes, and placing such safety measures on ships as barbed wire that would prevent pirates from being able to board vessels.
"We've had safety meetings every month for the last three years and made suggestions of what should be done and they have been ignored," Hicks said. "I'm just trying to make sure this is a lot better for other seamen."
Hicks also asked the two companies pay at least $75,000 in damages, saying he doesn't know if he will ever work on a ship again.
"My family is not looking forward to me going back out to sea. But I'm not sure if I'm going back. I'm still nervous, leery. I might find something else to do, said Hicks, who has worked 32 years as a merchant seaman.
"We think (the companies) should be more concerned about the personnel on their ships than the profits the companies make," said Terry Bryant, Hicks' attorney.
Both companies do business in Texas, which is why the suit was filed in Houston, he said.
Pirates took over the Alabama on April 8 before Capt. Richard Phillips surrendered himself in exchange for the safety of his 19-member crew. The captain was taken on a lifeboat and held hostage for five days before US Navy SEAL snipers on the destroyer USS Bainbridge killed three of his captors and freed him.
Hicks said crew members have been trained on what to do if pirates or others threaten the ship.
"We need more than training," said the 53-year-old who lives in Royal Palm Beach, Fla., and has two grown sons. "I never thought nothing like this would ever happen."
Hicks said pirates had tried to board the ship two other times that week, but the Alabama had managed to outrun them. But on April 8, as Hicks was preparing food for the crew, the ship's alarm rang and the captain announced the ship was being boarded by pirates.
Hicks and the other crew members went to their designated safety room, which was the engine room, and they waited there for more than 12 hours in 125 degree heat.
"I didn't know if I was going to live or die," Hicks said.
The crew managed to take a pirate hostage, wounding him with an ice pick, and attempted to use him to get back Phillips. But the bandits fled the ship with Phillips as their captive, holding him in the lifeboat until the SEAL sharpshooters rescued him.
"He did a hell of a job saving us," Hicks said of Phillips.
But Bryant said the Maersk Line and Waterman share the blame for putting the crew at risk.
"We want to bring more attention to the shipping industry and the dangers in pirate-infested waters," he said.