Captain held by pirates praises SEAL 'superheroes'
Saturday, April 18, 2009
UNDERHILL, Vt. -- The unassuming ship captain who escaped the clutches of Somali pirates made a triumphant return home Friday, insisting he's no hero, just an ordinary seaman.
Richard Phillips said the U.S. Navy, which pulled off the daring high-seas rescue that ended his five-day captivity, deserves the credit.
"They're the superheroes," a relaxed, hale-looking Phillips said upon his arrival at Burlington International Airport. "They're the titans. They're impossible men doing an impossible job, and they did the impossible with me. ... They're at the point of the sword every day, doing an impossible job every day."
Phillips, who had offered himself up as a hostage after pirates made an aborted attempt to seize the Maersk Alabama cargo ship April 8 off the coast of Somalia, survived the ordeal after Navy snipers on the USS Bainbridge killed the three pirates holding him with simultaneous shots under the cover of night.
But he doesn't want credit.
"I'm not a hero, the military is," he said, appearing healthy and invigorated at a brief airport news conference shortly after his arrival. "I am just a bit part in this story, the small part of a seaman doing the best he can like all the other seamen out there."
Not quite. Not every sailor gets a ride in a chartered jet, a police escort home and a hero's welcome in his hometown. Phillips did.
His wife, Andrea, and their adult children, Daniel and Mariah, boarded the sky-blue Maersk corporate jet after it landed, greeting him.
Phillips, wearing a USS Bainbridge baseball cap, waved to a small, cheering crowd and hugged his daughter before disappearing into a building for a private reunion with his family. He emerged later to praise his fellow crew members.
"We did it," he said, speaking with a thick New England accent. "We did what we were trained to do."
When Phillips was rescued, his arms were bound. On Friday, abrasions and scabs could be seen on the insides of his forearms. Asked what the high-seas hostage experience was like, he said: "Indescribable, indescribable."
After his airport appearance, Phillips, 53, was driven home in a dark sport utility vehicle, a Vermont State Police cruiser leading the way into the small rural community where he lives, past freshly tilled farm fields, a pen with spring lambs in it and clusters of neighbors who came out of their houses to wave as he passed.
He doffed the baseball cap and waved it out the window as he passed Chamberlin's Garden & Farm Market, where four cars sat idling, their drivers honking their horns.
Arriving at his small white farmhouse, he found it festooned with ribbons, "Welcome Home" balloons and signs, with a flag-waving contingent of about 25 people standing on the other side of the road, cheering.
"To be able to come home, safe and sound, from such a harrowing experience ... oh, how Andrea's heart must be filled with joy right now," said Kathy Wright, of neighboring Jericho, a friend who waved red, white and blue pompoms when Phillips' vehicle pulled into the driveway.
There was no immediate plan for a parade or public celebration, owing to the family's status as somewhat reluctant celebrities.
"We're respecting the family's wishes and waiting to see what they'd like to do," said Kari Papelbon, the town's zoning administrator.
But all around town, the yellow ribbons that came to symbolize Underhill's hope during the five days of Phillips' captivity fluttered in a spring breeze, with lots of late additions as his arrival drew near.
There was a "Welcome Home Captain" sign in front of the Stitch In Time yarn shop, a "Welcome Home Captain Phillips" sign in front of Browns River Middle School and a "Welcome Home Captain Phillips" tar paper sign affixed to a red barn across the street from the family's home.
Just as telling were a pair of posterboard signs on the fence in front of Phillips' home.
"Thank You for Your Prayers," said one.
"Please Give Us Some Time as a Family," said another, a polite message to members of the media and anyone else hoping to get close.
"This is not one of our typical homecomings," Andrea Phillips said during the family's airport appearance, "and now that Richard is back, I just ask that you give us some time for us to be a family again."
Phillips was looking forward to some simple pleasures at home -- a cold beer, some chicken pot pie and his mother-in-law's brownies. Around Underhill, folks planned to welcome him but give him his space, too.
"You want to say `welcome home' and then be as normal as possible," said Molly Abbey. "The beauty of a small town is you have the lifting up and the support but also that people respect privacy."
Other crew members marked homecomings this week, as well. On Sunday, just days after returning to his home in New York City's Harlem neighborhood, William Rios will be in the pews at Second St. John Baptist Church.
The Rev. Robert Jones said that he has spoken to Rios since his return and that he agreed to speak during the morning service. Jones also said Rios told him about his ordeal in a telephone conversation.
"He was very afraid," Jones said. "He said, 'I was afraid because I didn't know what was going to happen.' He's thanking God, and we're thanking God."
In West Hartford, Conn., Maersk Alabama crew member ATM "Zahid" Reza, who was steering the ship and stabbed one of the pirates when they attacked, said he'll avoid the shipping lanes off Somalia from now on because it's too dangerous there.
He returned home to his wife and 6-year-old son Friday afternoon and was greeted by neighbors holding welcome home signs. He said he was looking forward to some sleep and time with his family.
"I feel now it's peace and quiet," he said. "I'm so glad to see my wife, my son."