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UWRF professor explains familial ties to Captain Richard Phillips

October 24, 2013

In 2009, Somali pirates hijacked the U.S. container ship Maersk Alabama. On board the ship was Captain Richard Phillips and 18 other men in his crew.

“It was the Wednesday before Easter weekend, and I remember telling my husband Richard’s boat was hijacked,” said Assistant Professor of Communications and Theater Studies Grace Coggio.

Coggio is not only a professor at UW-River Falls, but is also Phillips’ sister-in-law. “The kids dubbed him as Captain Famous,” she laughed as she held up family photos to prove she was indeed related to Phillips.

“I felt compelled to tell my students,” Coggio said.  “Sharing it with them, explaining to them that we had these huge tankers in pirate filled waters really opened their eyes.”

The Maersk Alabama was on a multiple day voyage navigating through the Indian Ocean en route to Africa. The ship carried 17,000 metric tons of cargo, including relief supplies for Africa.

“It is what he does and he loves it,” Coggio explained.

The ship was unarmed on its voyage. According to The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a state may prohibit the carriage of any weapons into its territory, even though there is no contravention of the law of the ship’s flag state.

Piracy off the coast of Somalia has been a real threat to cargo ships out at sea.

“It was not a matter of if, but when, you get hit by pirates,” Coggio recalled from a previous conversation with her brother-in-law on the dangers of pirates invading their ship.

Captain Phillips practiced hijacking drills with his crew before they left the docks. “He took his job very seriously,” she added.

The journey went sour near the coast of Somalia, where piracy was a common practice. “It was an undercurrent of concern,” Coggio said.

Four Somali men approached the ship several days into the voyage. The 18 crew members took cover in the ship’s locked engine room, while Phillips was kidnapped and thrown onto a small boat by the four young pirates.

“He is a pragmatic, matter-of-fact, smart man who I believed could survive this,” Coggio said.

Coggio related her family’s traumatic experience to the classroom.

“Others need to realize the ramifications of the deterioration of Somalia and that people resort to very dangerous means of income that is not necessarily well-known to us,” Coggio said.

With the recent release of the film, “Captain Phillips,” there are many opportunities for people to educate themselves on the piracy issue in Somalia.

“The movie does a really good job to help others understand that there are forces at work that compel people to take the actions that they do,” Coggio added. “They are not evil entities, but are just doing what they think they need to do.”

Phillips was rescued four days into his kidnapping by the U.S. Navy Seals.

“I remember my students becoming so involved in his situation and celebrating in his release,” Coggio said.

Phillips was back out at sea less than two years after his kidnapping.

“He’s alive now and he got through it,” Coggio said. “It was an amazing story that ended so well and my family will tell this story for years to come.”