Ronke Phillips and Sohel Uddin, NBC News, November 9, 2013
It was an eerie sight: an American oil supply ship abandoned in one of the danger-filled creeks that snake through the south of Nigeria, stars and stripes fluttering from its mast, but no sign of life on board.
A crew from NBC News tracked the C-Retriever to the outskirts of the Port of Onne two weeks after pirates boarded it and took hostage the two U.S. citizens on board — the captain and the chief engineer.
The incident has been cloaked in mystery, with no information on the fate of the two men or where they are being held and the Nigerian Navy refusing to say what became of the vessel after the Oct. 23 attack in the Gulf of Guinea.
Finding the ship was a complicated and potentially perilous operation through waters that have become increasingly popular with pirates and sea-robbers who take cover in the inlets while they stalk victims.
Piracy is surging in Nigeria, with Capt. Richard Phillips declaring it “worse even than Somalia,” where he was taken hostage in 2009 and then rescued by Navy SEALS, a high-seas drama chronicled in a current Tom Hanks movie.
When we tried to hire two speed boats at a jetty known as Borokri, the locals were reluctant, deeming it too risky to travel with a crew that included a white cameraman and an Asian producer.
One boat owner eventually agreed, but only if we hired armed security.
We filmed the 222-foot vessel from a distance without incident, and then as we contemplated pulling alongside to take a closer look, one of our crew spotted a naval ship heading toward us and we ended the mission.
Later, the man who rented us the boats told us piracy was such a problem in the area he did not want be filmed or named for fear of reprisals.
Usually, sailors kidnapped in Nigerian waters are released after a ransom is paid. It remains to be seen if that’s how the C-Retriever crew’s ordeal will end.