‘So close we could see them smiling’
Fayette’s Melina Gardner was part of rescue mission off Somalian coast
By DAVID GREEN
People around the world followed the ordeal in the Indian Ocean after the American cargo ship Maersk Alabama was boarded by Somalian pirates.
Gardner, 21, serves as a gas turbine engineer on the USS Bainbridge, the Navy destroyer involved in the rescue of Maersk Alabama captain Richard Phillips.
The 500-foot container ship had been harassed by pirates for a week before the marauders boarded the freighter.
A 13-hour ordeal appeared to be coming to a conclusion when the pirates were given a lifeboat to use after their own boat sank. Capt. Phillips, who offered himself as a hostage to save his crew, was demonstrating how to use it when the pirates separated from the ship with the captain aboard.
The Bainbridge was on pirate patrol 300 miles away and arrived Thursday, April 9, to assess the situation and stalk the lifeboat. On the following day President Obama gave the direction to use lethal force to rescue the captain and Navy SEALs parachuted to the scene Saturday night.
With deteriorating weather on Easter Sunday, the Bainbridge offered to tow the lifeboat. A 200-foot line was attached and sailors slowly reeled it in until the boat was only about 80 feet away.
As darkness fell, the Navy sharpshooters found the perfect moment to kill the pirates. SEALs shimmied along the tow line to the lifeboat and found Capt. Phillips tethered inside.
An exciting but stressful ordeal ended for the crew of the Bainbridge and Gardner was somewhat surprised how it affected her.
“For the four days we were out there, I was watching him in the lifeboat,” said Gardner, who also serves as a gunner on the ship’s Small Caliber Action Team (SCAT). “We could see him every day. The tension was crazy.”
It wasn’t just the captain’s safety that was on the minds of the crew. The pirates were armed and often drifted quite close to the Bainbridge.
“At some points we were so close we could see them smiling,” Gardner said. “But we were worried for the captain and after a while the feeling of danger went away. We just wanted to get him out of there.”
When the long standoff ended and Capt. Phillips was safely onboard the destroyer, Gardner had the opportunity to reflect on the previous days.
“I’ve never felt so close to someone I don’t know,” she said.
“That’s Melina,” said her mother, Christina Mellott.
Her daughter’s reaction didn’t surprise her at all.
“She’s a person who can make connections.”
Christina and Randy Mellott of Fayette silently listened in on the Observer interview, then had the opportunity to speak with their daughter.
“You are my hero, Melina,” Christina said.
“Hi, Mom,” Melina answered, instantly recognizing the voice 8,000 miles away. “You’re my hero. That’s why I’m out here and I’m excited to be here.”
Choosing the Navy
When Melina Gardner got her diploma from Gorham Fayette High School in 2006, she had a decision to make: college or the military. Those were the two options her mother was pushing.
“We’re all pretty gung-ho,” she said about leaning to the military side.
Her mother, Christina Mellott, was a U.S. Army nurse. Her father, Randy Mellott, was a U.S. Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) diver.
And that’s just the beginning. Melina marks the third generation to serve on her mother’s side, and there are plenty of other relatives who either have served in the armed forces or are still active.
First Melina chose the military, then she had to decide on which branch.
“At the last minute I chose the Navy,” she said.
It was a good decision. She wanted to work with computers and skills testing placed her high in the electronics field. Now, as one of about 300 crew members on the USS Bainbridge, she’s trained to work on the gas turbine engines that both propel the destroyer and generate its electricity.
“It’s like an airplane engine in a box,” she said.
Once she completed her basic training, only 16 days passed until she was on her first deployment—aboard the Bainbridge.
Since its construction in 2005, the ship has often deployed to the Mediterranean area, but it’s been on pirate duty more than once. It’s all the same to Melina.
“I’m always in the engine room,” she said. “When I see daylight I get excited.”
She’s not always inside. Melina is also a member of the Bainbridge SCAT team (small caliber action team) to help man the gun mounts.
“I like guns anyway,” she said.
She’s also put some time in at the helm and once piloted the ship through the Suez Canal.
That just floors her parents.
“She didn’t learn to drive until she was 18,” Randy said. “Now she’s piloting a multi-million dollar ship.”
Her initial enlistment is for five years and she isn’t certain what will follow in 2011. Eventually she wants to head to college to study physical therapy, but there might be additional years at sea.
That might depend on how the job market looks on land.
“If the economy is still bad,” she said, “I’ll probably stay in.”
This isn’t the first time for the words “Bainbridge” and “pirates” to be connected.
The USS Bainbridge was named for Commodore William Bainbridge, who was held prisoner by the Barbary pirates from 1803 to 1805.
During the American Revolution, Bainbridge’s first command was with a schooner named Retaliation.
This time around—more than 200 years later—it was the military on the Bainbridge who got the upper hand, with Navy snipers ending the hostage situation.