Saturday, 2:15 PM
Captain freed from captivity after being held by Somali pirates
After five days as the hostage of pirates in a lifeboat off the coast of Somalia, Captain Richard Phillips was freed today in an operation by US Navy Seals that killed three of his captors. Navy snipers struck because of fears that Phillips was in imminent danger of being shot and killed, according to Navy officials.
Vice Admiral Bill Gortney said the pirates were armed with AK-47s and small-caliber pistols and were pointing the rifles at Phillips when the commander of the nearby USS Bainbridge gave the order to open fire.
Phillips, captain of the unarmed shipping vessel Maersk Alabama, was not injured in the several minutes of gunfire and was in good condition. He was taken aboard the nearby USS Bainbridge.
The operation was authorized by President Barack Obama, said Gortney, who is commander of US Naval Forces Central Command. The White House had given "very clear guidance and authority" to take action if Phillips' life was theatened, Gortney said.
Obama said Phillips had courage that was "a model for all Americans."
Phillips gave a more modest view.
"I'm just the byline. The heroes are the Navy, the Seals, and those that have brought me home," the shipping captain told his boss, Maersk Line Limited President and CEO John Reinhart, who relayed the message to reporters hours after Phillips' rescue.
Phillips, 53, talked to Reinhart by phone after he was liberated from the lifeboat.
The fourth pirate in the hijacking was aboard a nearby US Naval warship at the time of the shooting, negotiating with US officials, and was taken into custody.
The Maersk Alabama, was carrying humanitarian aid south toward Kenya when it was attacked by pirates Wednesday. Phillips and the crew thwarted the siege, and, the crew said, the captain was taken hostage
Escorted by Navy Seals, Phillips's 20-member crew reached Mombasa on the coast of Kenya yesterday under the guidance of the Alabama's second-in-command, Shane Murphy, 33, of Seekonk.
Their vigil over and prayers answered, several members of Phillips's family emerged from his River Road home in Underhill, Vt. this afternoon, smiles stretching across their faces, and embraced each other, but made no comment.
In front of the home, a spokeswoman for the family, Alison McColl, read a prepared statement:
“The Phillips family wants to thank you for all your support and prayers. [Andrea Phillips] has felt the caring and concern extended by the nation to her family. This is truly a very happy Easter for the Phillips family. Andrea and Richard have spoken, I think you can all imagine their joy and what a happy moment that was for them. They’re all just so happy and relieved. Andrea wanted me to tell the nation that all your prayers and good wishes have paid off because Captain Phillips is safe.”
The news that Phillips was free caused a slowdown of traffic near his family's home, where a swarm of media gathered. Passing by, local resident Julie Schroeder lowered her passenger-side window and asked what happened. Told of the captain's rescue, she said, “That’s just a blessing, a miracle on a perfect day for it to happen.”
Schroeder, an acquaintance of Andrea Phillips, said she had been praying for Phillips's release since his capture. She considers him a hero and hopes the town greets him with fanfare upon his return.
The crew of the Maersk has credited Phillips with saving them and the ship by surrendering himself to the pirates, after the attempted siege more than 300 miles off the coast of Somalia.
When the crew heard the news aboard their ship in the port of Mombasa, they placed an American flag over the rail of the top of the Maersk Alabama and whistled and pumped their fists in the air. Crew fired two bright red flares into the sky from the ship.
"We made it!" said crewman ATM Reza, pumping his fist in the air.
"He managed to be in a 120-degree oven for days, it's amazing," said another of about a dozen crew members who came out to talk to reporters. He said the crew found out the captain was released because one of the sailors had been talking to his wife on the phone.
At the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Bourne, Phillips's alma mater, school president Richard Gurnon said at a press conference that he was relieved and happy for Phillips and his family that their ordeal was over.
"We are truly, truly pleased that this drama has ended with the safe return of Captain Philips," Gurnon said. "In my mind his actions showed unbelievable courage and professionalism.
"It doesn't get better than this. This is exactly the way we wanted this to end."
Maersk Line Ltd., based in Norfolk, Va., issued a statement that said the U.S. government informed the company around 1:30 p.m. today that Phillips had been rescued. President and CEO John Reinhart called Philip’s wife to tell her the good news, according to the statement, which also said the crew of the Maersk Alabama was jubilant when they received word.
“We are all absolutely thrilled to learn that Richard is safe and will be reunited with his family," Reinhart said in the statement. "Maersk Line, Limited, is deeply grateful to the Navy, the FBI and so many others for their tireless efforts to secure Richard's freedom. We join Richard’s family, his crew and his colleagues ashore in celebrating this wonderful news. We look forward to welcoming him home in the coming days.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.