Manila, Philippines ‚Äì 8 AM, March 29, 2010. 31-year old Gerald Gonzales of Iloilo City had only three hours of sleep when the fire alarm sounded. The lone Filipino in a crew of 23 seafarers aboard cargo ship Iceberg 1, Gonzales dragged himself out of bed still dreaming about finally coming home. He was literally counting the days till the end of his contract on April 12, 2010.
Funny how some plans end up differently.
The fire alarm was followed by a series of gunshots. Gerald quickly went to the engine room where he met a crewmate. ‚ÄúPirates on board,‚Äù he told Gerald. The Filipino decided to hide in the engine room. After a while, he changed his mind and decided to see what was going on.
It was like a scene from a movie. His ship was trying to outrun a group of Somali bandits in a speedboat that were trying to hijack Iceberg 1. The pirates were using heavy artillery to stop the ship. The chief engineer abandoned his post upon seeing the pirates loading up their RPG weapons. The ship‚Äôs captain was nowhere to be found.
Using a 10-feet handmade ladder, the Somali pirates boarded the ship and took over with guns and ammo. They stayed, guarding the ship and crew, for nearly three long years, making Iceberg 1 the longest held ship in the Gulf of Aden.
Gerald described the Somali pirates as young, tough bandits with a few elders going in and out. The youngest pirate was a ten-year old boy, timid and still under the tutelage of his ‚Äúelders‚Äù.
‚ÄúThere were more than 100 Somali pirates taking shifts in groups of 9 to 13 persons, guarding us at all times. They wanted us to build them a ladder that they could use to climb other ships. The pirates got angry when our ship ran aground. We had to drop anchor due to engine troubles and bullet holes that caused sand and water to enter the engine room. They realized they could not use the Iceberg 1 to hijack other ships at sea,‚Äù Gonzales recalled.
How cruel were the pirates? Very, he said. He recounted how the pirates hanged the 61-year old ship captain upside down by tying one leg to the mast. He had to endure that torture for hours, the seafarer added. The pirates were particularly harsh to the chief engineer whom they accused of not stopping the ship when told to. The engineer lost both his ears. ‚ÄúSliced off,‚Äù Gerald said. Both officers were brought to their individual rooms, not to be seen for more than two years.
‚ÄúWhen I saw my captain after we were all released, he was not the same. He lost a lot of weight, walked slowly, and had several injuries. He was very weak.‚Äù
‚ÄúOur food supply was good for three months while our water provisions lasted six months. When we had no more food and water, the pirates would feed us twice a day but later on they reduced this to just one meal per day,‚Äù he said.
Days turned to weeks, weeks to months, and months to years. Gerald thought he would be stuck on that ship forever. ‚ÄúMy shipmates would check their calendars from time to time. I never did. Even if Christmas was approaching, so what? We were still there with the pirates.‚Äù
Difficult were the days when Gerald would see hostaged ships nearby freed by international forces.
‚ÄúAt one time, there were eleven other ships but I noticed that the longest it took to rescue them was three months. One by one the ships would leave, and I thought that no one seemed to care about us on Iceberg 1,‚Äù he lamented.
Gerald said the pirates enjoyed firing their guns and chewing weeds that give them a different kind of high. ‚ÄúWhen they chewed, they became mellow. When bored, they‚Äôd aim their guns at the crew and fire, intentionally missing their targets by just a few inches. We endured all of that for more than two years.‚Äù
On December 10, 2012, the crew woke up to the sounds of gunfire. The pirates were under attack from above by a helicopter with snipers and below, from maritime police officers firing their weapons while circling the ship with their speedboats. The battle went on for twelve days.
The pirates relented when snipers aboard the helicopter gunned down two of the six people sent by their camp to reinforce their ranks. The leader of the pirates decided to accept the offer of the maritime police: escape now and leave the crew, or stay put and die. The pirates ‚Äúescaped‚Äù leaving the ship captain, the engineer and the rest of the crew including Gerald ready for rescue. On January 4, 2013, Gerald arrived home.
Though safe, his battle is far from over. He has more than two years of back wages to collect from the ship‚Äôs owner. The International Transport Federation (ITF) has promised to help him out. Will he sail again? Yes, he replied. ‚ÄúBut not until I am fully rested, and this time, I will be more careful.‚Äù