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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

Crew members of UAE ship attacked by Houthis tell of terrifying raid

The ship was sailing through the Bab Al Mandeb Strait when its observation tower was destroyed in what crew members said was a missile strike.
Denys Kokhan, left, and Oleksander Lukianov from Ukraine worked as mechanics on board the vessel, which is owned by Abu Dhabi’s National Marine Dredging Company. The ferry was sailing through the strait that connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. Pawan Singh / The National
Denys Kokhan, left, and Oleksander Lukianov from Ukraine worked as mechanics on board the vessel, which is owned by Abu Dhabi’s National Marine Dredging Company. The ferry was sailing through the strait that connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. Pawan Singh / The National

ABU DHABI // Oleksandr Lukianov was in his cot aboard the Swift when a loud blast from a higher deck startled him from his slumber.

Before the Ukrainian could speculate on the cause, the ship tilted sharply to one side, tossing him to the ground as a steel wardrobe and other furniture collapsed around him in the darkness.

It is possible Mr Lukianov, 31, lost consciousness because the next thing he remembers is being shaken awake by his shipmates.

“They said ‘Oleks, wake up, wake up’,” he said. “‘Oleks, Oleks, they are shooting’.”

The crew of 24 young men on the ship – owned by the UAE’s National Marine Dredging Company and used to ferry humanitarian aid to Yemen – was attacked by Houthi rebels while they slept.

The ship was sailing through the Bab Al Mandeb Strait when its observation tower was destroyed in what crew members said was a missile strike.

When Mr Lukianov ran from his room, he could see the bridge “was completely destroyed by fire”.

He added: “We heard some shooting, but we could not understand from which side. There was some noise but we could not understand from which side they were moving.

“The messroom was completely destroyed. We were afraid because if you don’t die from fire, you could die from a bullet.”

Michal Czubakowski, the Polish first officer, said most of the crew were in their rooms when the ship was attacked at about 3am. Three of them were working on the observation deck and two were in the engine room.

“First impression for everybody was just a collision with another ship because nobody expects such a thing,” said Mr Czubakowski, 34.

“But suddenly there was an alarm, and the duty engineer and the second mate were running around and they were just screaming that we were hit by a rocket.”

The force from the blast pushed the vessel to the side, causing furniture and storage cabinets to topple, in some cases injuring the crew.

The men tried to help one another while escaping from their rooms and evading gunfire, said Mr Czubakowski. Most of the doors had been blocked by fallen furniture or ceilings.

“We were trying to help each other, just going door to door to check if somebody was inside,” he said.

Shailendra Kumar, an Indian who sustained facial injuries from the falling furniture, said he ran outside after hearing the blast and saw some colleagues had been bloodied in the commotion.

As he saw flames shooting from the front of the ship, he and others ran towards the back and saw people firing from a small boat. The gunfire continued for half an hour, said Mr Kumar, 33.

“I was very scared and I laid down on the floor,” he added.

After the shooting stopped, the crew of the Swift set out to launch a lifeboat as they waited for rescue. The UAE Navy and Coastguard arrived about an hour or two after the missile strike.

Mr Kumar was visibly shaken on Tuesday as he spoke about the ordeal. He and his crewmates are recovering in the UAE, where they have been given medical care, clean clothes and shelter.

“I was thinking that we were going to lose our lives,” said the father of two. “It was very sad. We never thought that we would come back again.”

rpennington@thenational.ae