The 58-foot vessel, named the Quest, was captured by pirates in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Oman on Friday and was being shadowed by the military. Ship owners Jean and Scott Adam and Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle were aboard the Quest, and today were found shot after US forces boarded the vessel about 1:00 a.m. ET. Officials said the yacht was less than two days from the Somali coast.
The forces responded after a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at a US Navy ship about 600 yards away – and missed – and the sound of gunfire could be heard on board the Quest, US Navy Vice Adm. Mark Fox told reporters.
“Despite immediate steps to provide life-saving care, all four hostages ultimately died of their wounds,” US Central Command said.
The incident took place as negotiations involving the FBI were under way for the hostages’ release, Fox said. Two pirates had boarded a US Navy ship Monday for the negotiations, he said. He told reporters he had no information on details of the negotiations or whether a ransom had been offered.
Two pirates were found dead on board the Quest, he said. In the process of clearing the vessel, US forces killed two others, one with a knife, Fox said. Thirteen others were captured and detained along with the other two already on board the US Navy ship. Nineteen pirates were involved altogether, he said.
The Adams were from Marina del Rey, California, Fox said, and Macay and Riggle were from Seattle, Washington.
The 15 detained pirates were being held together on a US warship, Fox said, and “we will go through the appropriate process to bring them to a judicial process and hold them accountable for their activities.”
He said authorities believe the pirates were attempting to get the vessel and hostages to Somalia, or at least into Somali territory waters.
Fox said it was the deadliest pirate hijacking involving US citizens that he could recall. There have been fewer than 10 fatalities associated with pirate activity in the region in the past few years, he said.
The Adams, Macay and Riggle, had been traveling with yachts participating in the Blue Water Rally since their departure from Phuket, Thailand, rally organizers said Sunday on the event’s website. The group, which organizes long-distance group cruises, said the Quest broke off on February 15 after leaving Mumbai, India, to take a different route.
A statement from Blue Water Rallies on Tuesday called the four “brave adventurers.”
“We at Blue Water Rallies are stunned and devastated by the news of the loss of four friends who have had their innocent lives taken away from them by the pirate menace which is plaguing the Indian Ocean,” it said.
The Somalis also issued condolences. “I do express a deep condolence to the families,” said Omar Jamal, first secretary of the Somali mission to the United Nations, in a statement.
US President Barack Obama was notified early Tuesday of the deaths, White House spokesman Jay Carney said. Obama had a briefing on the situation over the weekend and authorized the use of force against the pirates in the event of an imminent threat to the Americans’ safety, he said.
Forces had been monitoring the Quest for three days, officials said. Four US Navy warships were involved in the response force – an aircraft carrier, a guided-missile cruiser, and two guided-missile destroyers, according to the statement.
Fox said Tuesday authorities believe the 19 pirates came aboard the Quest after traveling on a “mother ship.”
The “mother ship” trend – pirates using another hijacked merchant vessel – has recently appeared in the past few months, said Cyrus Mody, manager at the International Maritime Bureau in London. The mother ships provide pirates with “a lot more reach, a lot more capability to move out (farther) into the Indian Ocean,” he said.
In addition, pirates can stay on board longer, have appropriate equipment and can demand the expertise of the ship’s crew, he said. Previously, pirates typically hijacked a vessel and held it until a ransom was paid, he said.
The Adams were a passionate couple who spent most of their time since 2004 boating around the world, said Scott Stolnitz, who knew Scott Adam, a retired film executive, for nearly 40 years. The couple had a small boat at the Del Rey Yacht Club, where they would occasionally return to visit friends, family and handle business, he said.
But traveling the world on their yacht was where they really wanted to be, he said.
“They loved the experiences they were having with the people they were meeting and the places they were going,” Stolnitz said. “We asked them once if they ever looked forward to living on land again, and they both, believe it or not, said no.”
He earlier had said the Adams were conscious of pirate threats and were concerned about boating in the area.
One aspect of their travels, according to the couple’s website, was “friendship evangelism – that is, finding homes for thousands of Bibles, which have been donated through grants and gifts, as we travel from place to place.” They also said their mission was to “allow the power of the Word to transform lives.”
But, Stolnitz said, vigorous evangelism wasn’t a major emphasis for the couple. “They use the Bible as an ice breaker,” he said.