Kidnapped off Nigeria – An American ship captain unveils the truth
Captain Wren Thomas III was the captain of an offshore supply vessel called C-Retriever. The vessel was hijacked in the Nigeria Delta on October 23 last year. Both Thomas and the vessel’s chief engineer were taken hostage. They were kept by their captors for about 20 days. When they regained their freedom on November 12, they were immediately flown out of Nigeria.
In this interview, the Illinois-born mariner speaks on his experience in Nigeria, a country where he worked for over four years.
After your ordeal in Nigeria, were you debriefed by anyone at Edison Chouest (ECO), your employers? If so, what did they say?
I was in debriefing for at least 5 hours. We started from “A” and went to “Z”. I had made an error (it was a time with the Latitude and Longitude) in my logbook and they gave me hell about that.
Then, as usual, I started my Chief Officers entry for the next day as he took over about 2330 – 2345. I told them I went to bed at this time and they said how could you be in bed and do the log at the same time?
They pretty much were calling me a liar. What I typically do is write the next date at the top, then I write 0001, Latitude, Longitude, C.O.G, S.O.G. and then let the Chief Officer fill in each.
This is just to get him on the right format. If I didn’t do this, I found that they would screw it all up or just wouldn’t write anything.
What is the hardest thing you’ve had to deal with since you were released?
Putting my family through this – I have a 92 year old grandmother. Not being able to tell my story to all the news agencies that wanted to hear it, the thought that I came really close to killing myself out in the bush and at home, all of the lies and not getting help sooner than what I did.
The very big thing that hurt the most is neither my family nor myself ever hearing from Gary Chouest, the owner of the company I was working for when kidnapped by the Nigerian pirates.
I realize there was a lot going on, but a few words to express that they were doing everything they could to get us home, or even meeting with us upon our release would have been nice.
If you could provide advice to anyone considering working offshore Nigeria, what would it be?
I would never recommend it to anyone. If I did I would tell them to stay in the United States. Or if they go overseas make sure the ship has armed guards and never, ever work in Nigeria.
Are there any policies that should be changed at companies like ECO, or their clients, to help prevent such incidents from happening in the future?
Yes take threats as threats – don’t brush off these indicators, because it’s a very dangerous environment to work in.
Also, have two American Captains and two American Chief Engineers per hitch running at the same time to give additional skill and experience to the vessels.
Of course, armed guards and citadels should be installed. Make sure the vessel is in top condition. We had two fire monitors and one was broke and both had to be started in the engine room but could be controlled from the wheel house.
We need night vision cameras. If you don’t have a citadel, make the wheel house bullet proof along with all exits in the wheelhouse (thick stainless steel with hidden hinges). A citadel should be stocked with radios, food, water, ventilation, satellite phone, panic button, first aid kits, medicines, etc.
How often do kidnappings of westerners occur offshore Nigeria?
It happens often.
Just two years before me, two Americans and a Mexican got kidnapped off the C-Endeavour.
About a week before me, one of our newer boats got attacked, but the pirates didn’t get on the ship for some reason.
About 6 months ago, one of the captains on one of our crew boats got poisoned.
Did the policies of Edison Chouest put you in danger that you weren’t aware of?
Yes, as there were really no policies. I was threatened many times by past employees (crew members) and these threats fell to deaf ears when I informed the company.
And being in Nigeria, Nigerians follow their own policies. Me following policies that were in place added to me getting kidnapped. There was no policy that would put guards on-board while at sea.
What is Edison Chouest’s policy with regard to the fuel theft trade?
That’s a hard one. Captains have been caught in the US airports with thousands of dollars and nothing happened. The Fast Servant got shot up and two captains beat over the Exxon fuel monitor. If the company wanted to stop it, they could put the Fuel Tracks back onboard all of their vessels in Nigeria and/or pull all their vessels out of Nigeria if it proves dangerous to do this.
Everyone has always said that the cause of the C-Endeavor’s attack was a fuel deal gone bad, that they had sold fuel to two buyers, but only pumped to one of them. In turn, the guy that didn’t get the fuel was very angry.
I was told by a Nigerian chief that he was on the bridge when the angry buyer came onboard and threatened the master wanting like one million US dollars to make it all go away. He had the captain on his knees begging for forgiveness on the bridge. Those two captains and the Mexican chief engineer were kidnapped for 14 days nearly two years ago. The chief engineer is now back in Nigeria and the two captains, from what I hear, got brand new vessels in the US Gulf of Mexico.
Has anyone at ECO threatened you in any way if you told your story?
They told me that it wouldn’t be in my best interest and that they couldn’t stop me but that they were not going to give me their blessing.
Gary Chouest was supposed to call me according to my manager to talk to me about it and never did.
I was begging to talk, as this is what my doctors were saying I needed to do to help me get over this. The best thing is to always talk and to stop it from living rent free in your head.
Why was this a hush-hush situation?
To be blunt, ECO didn’t want the world to know they screwed up again and still, two years after the C-Endeavor incident, the vessels had not been made any safer.
We were told that it would be in everyone’s best interest not to talk and I took this as a threat.
I spent 18 days in Nigerian swamps because of threats. So I thought it best not to push my luck on ignoring threats. My office, in their own way, said we can’t stop you from talking, but you are not getting our blessing nor do we recommend that you do it.
How have Edison Chouest’s policies changed following your release?
From people I have talked to recently, ECO really hasn’t done much as far as policies go. I have heard they have added some safety equipment, but in my opinion it isn’t enough.
What they have done exactly, I’m not sure. And of course, I have to think of security for the vessels still over there. I wouldn’t want to say too much.
I do know there are no guards on board. There is no bullet proof glass and the watertight doors can still be penetrated.