Ciro Pinto was certain he was right. The captain was relaxed as he enjoyed a drink at the bar of the MSC Melody cruise ship, chatting on Saturday afternoon with two South African passengers. The women asked him if the bands of marauding pirates posed a problem for the cruise. Never, the experienced seaman told them. After all, the ship was far -- 1,000 sea miles -- away from the Somali coast as it made its course across the Indian Ocean, a few hundred miles south of the Seychelles, on a 22-day cruise from Durban, South Africa, to Genoa, Italy. It was unimaginable, virtually impossible even, that flip-flop wearing pirates could attack them here.
But the small talk came to an abrupt end. According to eyewitnesses, two passengers came screaming into the bar and gesticulated wildly as they addressed the captain. A speed boat had appeared at the stern and several armed men were preparing to board the cruise ship, they said. One was already trying to scale the vessel. Several passengers were desperately grabbing deck chairs and tables and hurling them down at the men trying to board the ship.
That's when the first shots were fired. It was also the point at which the captain understood what was happening -- his ship was being attacked by pirates.
Pinto radioed an alarm code to his crew and ordered all passengers to go below deck, immediately. He then ran to the bridge. The pirates continued to try to board the ship. Pinto opened the safe and handed pistols to the security guards on board. He then called on the helmsman to steer the ship on a zig-zag course to fend off the pirates by creating large waves. The security guards, who by then had arrived at the ship's stern, fired two warning shots into the air.
"It was like war," the captain proudly announced on an Italian radio station the next morning. The crew and security personnel had defended themselves from the attack professionally, he said.
"You Can't Hold Back Pirates with Tables and Chairs"
This may read like the script of a Hollywood thriller, but new reports from eyewitnesses show that the attack on Saturday evening was considerably more dramatic than accounts provided so far would suggest. Pierfrancesco Vago, head of the Italian shipping company MSC, confirmed the version that cruise ship passengers gave to SPIEGEL ONLINE, describing their statements as "authentic."
The new details show just how close the ship came to getting hijacked. "We were professional," Vago says, rather openly, "but we were also lucky."
He calls it luck. But passenger Jules Tayler, who was on the ship's afterdeck, calls it "pure chance."
Initially, no one noticed the ship was being attacked. The first warning came when a woman intuitively leaned over the railing in semidarkness and noticed something when she peered down. She suddenly turned to her fellow passengers and said: "Yikes, there's a small boat next to us!"
Tayler and the others rushed to the railing and also saw what he described as five or six men sitting in a roofless pirate boat. One started climbing a rope to the deck beneath them. "He was already halfway up," says Tayler. One passenger screamed: "Pirates!"
Without hesitation, passengers began to grab whatever they could find around them. "We immediately began throwing tables and deck chairs at the rope," said Tayler. One hit a pirate scaling it. He fell off and the boat turned around, Tayler recalls.
The skirmish between the passengers and the pirates lasted for several minutes, he says. Suddenly, the pirates opened fire -- Tayler says he counted three salvos of 25 to 30 rounds each.
Again and again, the pirate boat would approach the ship and disappear under the stern, only to reemerge. Tayler and his fellow passengers continued to throw chairs despite the gunfire. One passenger was shot in the leg and one bullet grazed the head of a crew member. The armed security staff finally turned up six to eight minutes into the skirmish, passengers claim.
Eyewitness Rolf R.* who spoke to SPIEGEL ONLINE about the attack over the weekend, and Jules Tayler say they are certain that the fact that chairs and tables were thrown at the pirates saved the ship. If a single armed pirate had managed to board the ship, he would easily have been able to take hostage the 600 passengers who were listening to a classical music concert in another part of the ship at the time of the incident, Rolf R. says. "The crew was totally overwhelmed and no one knew how to ring the alarm," passenger Tayler, a Brit currently residing in South Africa, says.
MSC chief Vago puts it differently: "The passengers obstructed the attackers, but they were scared off by shots from our security people."
Captain Pinto, who has been celebrated in the press as a hero, reported details of the attack to the passengers on Monday. He seemed to almost be poking fun at them. "You can't hold back pirates with chairs and tables," he told the assembled passengers.
"It was only through the exemplary work of his crew and he himself that the ship was able to fend off the pirates," cruise passenger Rolf R. recalls the captain as saying. Pinto, it seems, relished his role as a hero.