Hollywood Meets Grounds: How ‘Captain Phillips’ Connects With U.Va.

November 01, 2013

John J. Flood spent more than two decades with the FBI in jobs that landed him in the middle of headline-grabbing global events.

The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. The Washington, D.C. sniper attacks. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The hijacking of the Maersk Alabama container ship off the coast of Somalia.

The latter incident – the subject of the popular “Captain Phillips” motion picture, starring Tom Hanks – occurred in 2009, when Flood was working as chief of the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit in Quantico. He’s now assistant director of the University of Virginia’s Office of Emergency Preparedness, a post he’s held since retiring from the FBI in July 2012.

During the Maersk Alabama drama, Flood managed the team of negotiators communicating directly and indirectly with the Somali pirates; the U.S. Navy command; family members of the Alabama’s captain, Richard Phillips; and the Navy SEALs.

The FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit provides exclusive negotiation expertise to the U.S. government in cases where Americans are abducted overseas.

The hostage situation exploded into the international spotlight several days before Easter in 2009 as news agencies reported the boarding of the unarmed cargo ship by a group of heavily armed young Somalis.

“I remember it vividly,” Flood said recently in his U.Va. office on Fontaine Avenue.

After watching television coverage with his colleagues in Quantico and conducting a mock exercise on how they might handle the situation, Flood went home for the day. It looked like a Navy job; he figured his team wouldn’t be dealing with these pirates.

The call came shortly before midnight.

“I have the Pentagon on the phone,” the FBI headquarters’ night officer said. On the line: a Navy captain, eager to include the FBI negotiators in the fold.

On the Maersk Alabama, the ship’s crew managed to capture the pirate leader. They agreed to trade him for Phillips, whom the other pirates held, in an exchange intended to take place on the ship lifeboat. The pirates, however, launched the lifeboat with Phillips still aboard and tensions continued to rise.

From Quantico, Flood assigned a negotiator to work with the Navy officer in contact with the pirates. The situation was anything but straightforward. Flood’s negotiator coached the Navy officer, who used a translator to relay messages to and from the pirates. The arrangement took an important tool out of the negotiators’ hands – the ability to read emotion and tone in a hijacker’s voice and phrasing.

Flood also paired FBI negotiators with Phillips’ family in the states, and with Maersk company officials in Norfolk, in case the pirates contacted them directly to seek ransom or make other demands.

Navy command needed Flood’s designated pirate negotiator to help slow down the situation on the ship and settle emotions. The military needed to buy time to fully analyze the situation and gather intelligence – and to get the SEALs in position.

“It’s no different than what police negotiators here in Charlottesville or Albemarle County would do,” Flood said. The basic steps include establishing dialogue, figuring out what the hijackers want, expressing concern for the safety of everyone and starting a communications routine. Meanwhile, work continues on a parallel track to get in position to launch a rescue if necessary, particularly if negotiators reach a conclusion that nonviolent resolution isn’t likely.

As the Navy destroyer USS Bainbridge grew closer to the Maersk Alabama, it became clear that the pirates wanted to get Phillips and the lifeboat to shore, where the odds of a rescue would plunge.

“If they got to the beach, all bets were off,” Flood said. “We’d lose that containment.”

Flood realized he and his team could use more information to improve the dialogue with the pirates. The Somalis, led by Abduwali Muse, were all very young. They were in a hostage situation, in confined spaces aboard a boat rolling on the open sea in hot weather, and under the influence of khat, a plant that acts as a stimulant when chewed. How did khat usage affect a person? What other details – cultural or religious, for example  – did the negotiators lack in their effort to connect with the pirates?

Enter U.Va.’s Critical Incident Analysis Group. Housed in the School of Medicine, CIAG is a research and advisory body that brings together physicians, scientists, researchers, law enforcement and much more to analyze critical incidents. The work is designed to give better understanding of how these incidents – such as the Oklahoma City bombing, embassy attacks or the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks – affect government and the societies it serves.

In the Somali pirate event, CIAG served as a direct line for Flood’s team to U.Va.’s expertise in toxicology and Somali culture. The call went to CIAG Executive Director Dr. Gregory Saathoff, who pulled in toxicology expert Dr. Chris Holstege, chairman of the CIAG Steering Committee and director of the Division of Medical Toxicology. Patrick Walsh, then program director of CIAG, coordinated the call.

“It was literally one phone call and we had the information back fast. They provided a behavioral assessment of khat from A to Z,” Flood said. “That collaborative relationship still exists.”

“We had earlier spent some time together in the Middle East, where we learned firsthand about the importance of khat as an addictive substance in certain cultures,” Saathoff recalled. “We could not have known then that Chris’ toxicology teaching material on khat would soon find its way instantaneously to the captain of the USS Bainbridge.”

The hijacking of Maersk Alabama ended violently for the pirates, three of whom were killed by SEAL snipers. Muse, the pirate leader, was arrested and later pled guilty to hijacking and kidnapping in U.S. federal court.

Flood got word of the end of the crisis while at Easter Mass at his family church in Stafford County. “The best feeling in the world,” he recalled.

A few years later, as he neared the FBI’s mandatory retirement age of 57, Flood and his wife thought about where they’d like to settle down. His twin daughters were already attending U.Va. He and his wife were in Charlottesville often for that reason and for frequent trips to the U.Va. Medical Center, where Flood’s wife receives care for a medical condition.

“I came to know U.Va and I said, ‘This is a great place to be.’”

After several interviews, Flood accepted the offer from Office of Emergency Preparedness Director Marge Sidebottom to serve as assistant director of the office, the University’s central hub for emergency policies, planning and procedures. Mementos from his previous stints with the FBI, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department adorn Flood’s office.

He hopes his obvious affinity for public service will rub off on others at the University. Chances are good that students here will be receptive.

“The culture of service we have in the FBI, we also have here at U.Va.,” he said. “The work ethic. The culture. A feeling of devoting oneself to something greater. I found that here, too.”

As for the movie, “Captain Phillips,” Flood hasn’t seen it yet. He’s heard rumblings about how Hollywood has handled parts of the narrative and shrugs them off. It’s a movie, after all.

Besides, he knows exactly how it all went down.

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