Gratitude, respect, pride rain on reluctant Vt. hero
UNDERHILL, Vt. - From captivity in a sweltering lifeboat in the Indian Ocean to freedom in the shadow of majestic Mount Mansfield, Captain Richard Phillips completed an improbable, emotional homecoming yesterday to tears, cheers, and a dinner of chicken pot pie.
Phillips, smiling broadly and embracing his family, made for a reluctant hero as he walked off a corporate jet and onto a tiny red carpet at Burlington International Airport at 4:40 p.m.
"I am just a bit part of this story," said Phillips, who praised the pinpoint marksmanship of Navy SEALs who killed his three pirate captors in a daring, precise climax to a tense, five-day standoff that had been watched by the world.
"They're the superheroes. They're the titans," Phillips said of the SEALs in brief remarks to the news media. "They did the impossible with me."
Phillips arrived in his home state of Vermont after a flight from Mombasa, Kenya, that spanned more than 16 hours on a private jet owned by Maersk, the company that also owns the cargo ship the Somali pirates hijacked on April 8.
The jet yesterday made brief stops in Malta and Spain before crossing the Atlantic Ocean with Phillips.
After four Customs officers boarded the small blue jet, parked in front of a small private terminal, Phillips's wife, mother, and two children began walking briskly toward the aircraft. Before long, however, Phillips's 19-year-old daughter, Mariah, broke away from the others and began running up the seven steps that separated her from her father.
A short, private welcome ensued aboard the jet before Phillips, wearing a cap from the USS Bainbridge, the Navy destroyer that rescued him, strode toward the terminal with his family and waved almost sheepishly toward a small crowd of well-wishers who applauded loudly and thanked him for his courage.
A few minutes later, Phillips and his wife, Andrea, faced a battery of cameras and a throng of reporters who stood along a metal gate at the edge of the tarmac.
"I have always been proud to call myself an American," said Andrea Phillips, who choked back tears as she spoke. "Today, I am even prouder."
Phillips, 53, then spoke publicly for the first time since he agreed to let the pirates take him hostage in exchange for the release of his crew and their ship, the Maersk-Alabama, which was delivering food aid to Kenya.
Several times in his remarks, he returned to the heroism of the SEALs and the other Navy personnel who patiently and meticulously outwitted the pirates and secured his freedom, even as an AK-47 was pointed at his back.
"They are everyday people," he said of the SEALs. "They are at the point of the sword every day."
He also thanked his crew, who waited anxiously in Mombasa as the Navy played a nerve-racking chess match of negotiation and wits with the pirates.
Phillips, speaking with traces of the broad Boston accent of his youth, seemed bewildered at the outpouring of national interest in his ordeal. He also reserved a special thank you for the prayers and wishes from fellow Vermonters.
"You really showed your stuff," he said. "It just floors me."
Phillips's wife placed her hand on his back as he spoke. His children, Mariah and Daniel, 20, seemed nearly overcome with emotion, their faces filled with expressions of pride, joy, and immense relief.
When asked to describe his ordeal, which ended when Navy officers believed Phillips's life to be in imminent danger, the captain had a short, simple answer. "Indescribable," he said, still flashing the smile of a man who fully realized his good fortune.
"Once again, I'm not a hero. The military is," he said. "Thank them whenever you see them. The military did it. Thank you. God bless America!"
Outside the gate, Randy Fisher stood with his wife and two children, brimming with wonder at a man he praised as brave and selfless. Fisher, from Albany, N.Y., had cut short a family outing to Montreal when he heard that Phillips would be arriving in Burlington yesterday.
"This was really important for our kids to see," Fisher said. "I thought it was time they really saw somebody who really was a hero. I think it's an event they'll never forget."
Near the Fisher family, Lynn Coeby of Ripton held a sign that read, "You're a good man, Captain Phillips!"
"I just think he's a great guy," Coeby said. "He put his life at risk for his crew. We're just so proud of him."
Shortly after his remarks, Phillips rode to his hometown of Underhill in a dark sport utility vehicle, a police escort easing the journey along narrow roads congested with rush-hour traffic from Burlington, the state's largest city.
Along the route, ordinary citizens stood outside their homes, some at the edge of their lawns, others on the running boards of their trucks, waiting for the small motorcade to pass with their local hero.
Yellow ribbons were tied tightly around tree trunks, flags fluttered from the roadside, and balloons bobbed from mailboxes at trim, tidy houses that spoke of small-town America.
In Underhill, about 30 people gathered near the Phillips home, cheering and waving flags. The captain, flashing a wide smile above a salt-and-pepper beard, returned a wave as he left the SUV and disappeared into his house. There, that chicken pot pie awaited, as well as his favorite beer and a batch of brownies baked by his mother-in-law.
Nearby, 14-year-old T.J. Wesson spoke of a swelling pride as he paused from shooting baskets in his yard.
"I'm excited he's back," Wesson said. "Captain Phillips shows people what Vermonters are like."
MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.