Stranger’s kindness saves ship captain

Exactly two years after being kidnapped and held for ransom by Nigerian pirates, Capt. Wren Thomas hugs his new service dog and reports a ray of light finally is penetrating the darkness.

Beaux, a Rottweiler with the disposition of a nurturing mother, nuzzles his nose against Thomas’ face. Confident everything is OK, the dog rests his furry brown-and-black head at Thomas’ feet.

It is Oct. 23, a date Thomas has tattooed on his left shoulder. Just below is another date, Nov. 9, 2013, when the supply ship captain was freed.

Eighteen days may not seem like a lot of time. But if your life is constantly being threatened by gun-toting, crack-cocaine-smoking rag-tag pirates, Thomas assures me, 18 days is an eternity – more than enough to provoke never-ending PTSD nightmares.

On Monday, Thomas and Beaux will leave Tom Tackett’s service dog operation on a hilltop in Orange Park Acres and fly home to Louisiana. But, Thomas says, the goodness of Orange County will forever remain in his heart.

It was kindness and financing from Sally Pascoe, a local resident who would just as soon remain anonymous, that brought Thomas and Beaux together.

At Saturday night’s celebratory dinner and official handover of Beaux, Thomas – a hulking man with a shaved head, goatee, silver hoop earrings and an array of skull and eagle tattoos – broke down. It was reminiscent of the first time Thomas met his benefactor.

“I was so choked up,” he admits, “it took me 10 minutes to tell her, ‘Thank you.’”

Of his ordeal off the coast of Nigeria, Thomas confesses things happened that he will never be able to discuss. Still, with Beaux by his side, the Marine lance corporal agrees to share his story.


Thomas, now 50, was raised on a farm in a Sidney, Ill., a village of 1,200. Restless for adventure, after high school he headed south to the Gulf of Mexico to learn to be a mariner and become a ship captain.

He swabbed decks and worked his way up. But after five years, he again grew restless and enlisted in the Marine Corps in San Diego. Because of family medical issues, he was honorably discharged after two years.

With his wife and sons, Thomas returned to Louisiana and quickly earned his captain’s license. In the next two decades, he guided ships in the Gulf of Mexico and eventually was transferred overseas while working for Edison Chouest, a company that builds and operates more than 200 offshore vessels.

For nearly five years, Thomas operated supply ships off the coast of western Africa in the Gulf of Guinea. His crew included a half-dozen Nigerians and an American engineer. They supported an offshore Chevron oil field. It was tough, demanding work. It also was dangerous.

According to Control Risks, an international strategic consulting firm, by 2013 the Gulf of Guinea saw an estimated 100 hijacking attempts a year.

The morning of Oct. 22, 2013, the captain left port guiding the C-Retriever, a 300-foot supply vessel. Low in the water, its sides were lined with massive tires as bumpers.

Earlier that week, Thomas says, the company was warned that an attack was expected. But in Nigerian waters, their ships weren’t allowed guards or guns. And the tires make climbing aboard especially easy. Still, they had a job to do.

Around midnight, Thomas gave up trying to sleep. What he calls a “sixth sense” told him trouble was brewing. Suddenly, at 3 a.m., shouts rang out. Armed pirates piloting 20-foot fiberglass skiffs were on deck.

Thomas and crew ran to the tank room and locked themselves behind a steel door. At first, they only heard muffled shouts. But then they heard the screech of a metal grinder at the door.

After six hours, the grinder broke through. Thomas sprayed water at the opening, hoping it would slow down the pirates. The electric shocks only made them angry. When they bore a hole big enough for the barrel of an AK-47, the pirates sprayed the tank room with bullets.

Realizing he and his crew would die, Thomas shouted they were surrendering and unlocked the door.

Immediately, it was clear this was a ransom mission. The pirates left the Nigerian crew alone. The most valuable items on board were the American engineer and Thomas.


As dawn broke, Thomas found himself on an island not much larger than a tennis court. It was choked with mangrove trees and the only water was brackish and stunk. Thomas reports his only food was noodles every other day.

The six guards – smoking crack and marijuana and drinking alcohol – were skittish, argued repeatedly, got in fights and chambered a round every time there was a noise.

“‘If anybody tries to rescue you, we’ll kill you,’” Thomas remembers them repeatedly threatening. “‘If you try to escape, we’ll kill you.’”

Petting Beaux, Thomas softly recalls, “That was really scary. It was constant, night and day. You didn’t know if you would be dead. You didn’t know how it would go down.”

Some 8,000 miles away, the FBI and Edison Chouest worked to settle things. Thomas says that back in Lafayette, La., his sons – now ages 28 and 24 – begged officials, “Just bring my daddy home.”

Eventually, there was ransom money. Thomas believes it upward of $2 million. But details remain vague on the ransom and company officials decline to talk.

Finally, the guards ferried Thomas and his engineer up a creek on the mainland. Several men appeared with a bag of cash. But it wasn’t enough.

“Is this really happening?” Thomas asked himself, his face buried in sand as ordered. “Are we going to get kidnapped again?”

The guards beat the bagmen until they gave up the rest of the ransom. After several more terrifying days, Thomas and his new escorts made their way to Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city.

In Orange, looking out the window to where Tackett is busy training dogs, Thomas quietly allows, “I’ve lived through the worst thing you can think of.”


A year ago, Thomas told CNN he was suicidal, had retained an attorney, couldn’t discuss his relationship with his former employer and needed help. Pascoe saw that report and contacted Tackett about a service dog.

Today, Thomas still struggles. He says he is on disability, has difficulty trusting people, can’t handle conflict and finds himself in the midst of divorce.

“I can’t deal with the daily life of being married,” Thomas explains of his PTSD. “I always have to have an out.”

But – because of Beaux, Tackett and Pascoe – much also has changed. “I’m going to miss this whole team. It’s been amazing.”

Thomas says he feels more secure with Beaux, has hope, and has started to find peace. After so much struggle, knowing strangers care has even changed his outlook: “It was hard to believe there are people in this world like that.”

Welcome home, Capt. Thomas.

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