LINTHICUM HEIGHTS, Md. — In April 2009, a high-stakes drama played out in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
For nearly five days, three teenage pirates held Richard Phillips, a Massachusetts-born container ship captain, in one of the lifeboats from his ship, the Maersk Alabama. The incident, unfolding more than 200 miles off the coast of Somalia, ended in dramatic fashion when Navy snipers shot three pirates dead — a fourth had already been captured by the container ship's crew — and rescued Phillips.
U.S. movie audiences will soon get a refresher course on the Maersk Alabama incident when Tom Hanks stars in Captain Phillips, due out Oct. 11. What few may know: Phillips and his crew learned how to repel the attack here at a little-known, state-of-the-art training facility just south of Baltimore. USA TODAY got exclusive access to the facility, where crews from around the world train, sometimes around the clock.
Built in the 1970s, when demand for private supply ships spiked during the Vietnam War, the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies has become a center for advanced merchant ship studies. Funded by the industry and operated both by shipping companies and the seamen's union, the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, it has become a one-stop shop for basic operations training and, increasingly, anti-terror and anti-piracy training using full-scale simulation technology. Price tag: $3,000 to 6,000 per crewmember.
"When I first started going to sea, the main thing we worried about in terms of security was stowaways and theft," says James Staples, who retired in 2010 after more than 30 years at sea, 20 of them as a captain. A classmate of Phillips at Massachusetts Maritime Academy in 1979, he now conducts safety training here. What little piracy merchant ships encountered, Staples says, was limited to the Strait of Malacca off Malaysia.
Like most industries, shipping responded to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with heightened security, but even then piracy wasn't the biggest threat. The Maersk Alabama incident changed that. The attack "was a whole new concept" that crews had little experience with: They didn't want to steal cargo or strip the ship of fittings, he says. "They wanted money — they wanted to hold Phillips for money. And when they knew they had an American ship, they thought they'd hit the jackpot."
During a three-day training here for prospective ship safety officers, Staples talks through a series of PowerPoint slides on basic safety regulations, then gets down to business. He produces two handheld metal detectors and asks for volunteers to do sweeps on one another. "It's not a hard process to do, but if you don't do it right it can be costly," he says as the students fumble through the process of waving the wands over classmates' outstretched arms.
He reminds them that anyone boarding their vessel must be checked for weapons. "When it comes to security, you can trust no one. No one."
Then the class, most of them in jeans and T-shirts, files downstairs to one of the school's two $30 million simulators that replicate what a captain would see from a freighter's bridge.
They're soon standing 18 feet above the center of a huge, 100-foot dome that projects a hyper-realistic scene nearly 360 degrees. This morning, they're staring at a pristine, nearly cloudless day in the Yemeni port of Aden, as a disembodied voice says calmly that intelligence reports have indicated "there is pirate activity in your area."
Within moments, one crewmember, standing outside the bridge, announces, "Lookout reports a vessel dead astern!" An alarm pings insistently as the screen bursts with activity. The once-empty port is now swarming with tiny, speeding vessels that surround the ship. One of the students, who'd volunteered to take on the role of captain, announces that he's locking down the bridge.
Soon a virtual search-and-rescue helicopter appears on the horizon and a voice proclaims, "I confirm: I have six men on board your ship."
The scene is as chilling as any movie, but crewmembers seem calm as they methodically walk through the steps of sealing the bridge and moving into the ship's safe room. It also doesn't hurt that a simulated Navy SEAL team is aboard and about to go deal with the intruders.
If only Phillips had been that lucky. Part of the problem that he and his crew encountered in 2009 was that they were blindsided by the pirate attack. They were delivering food aid to Africa and like many other ships sailing in the area at the time, they simply didn't have good intelligence on pirates' movements, Staples says. "Yeah, we knew where they were two, three, four, five days ago, but we didn't know where they were going to be tomorrow."
Now a private consultant, he's working to get captains "threat assessments" ahead of time, before they set foot on a ship. "That should be part of the voyage plan," he says, likening what many ships encounter to "walking into a supermarket and there's a robbery going on."
In the meantime, demand for the training provided here is increasing. The simulations now run eight hours a day, five days a week. This summer, Brazilian crews kept the simulators running on a second shift, until 11 most nights.
The union, which like many others has seen its membership drop as U.S.companies outsource shipping, hopes the new Tom Hanks movie will highlight the importance of U.S.-flagged merchant ships, especially during wartime, when they support troops in conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Without a U.S.-flagged merchant marine, we're not really a world power," says Don Marcus, president of the union. "We could be held hostage in our foreign trade and we couldn't support our military."