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People Top 5
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- May 04, 2009
- Vol. 71
- No. 17
A Hero's Homecoming
Back in Vermont, Capt. Richie Phillips Reunites with His Family and Friends as New Details Emerge About His Harrowing Showdown with Somali Pirates
Basking in the glow of his heroism, it turns out, isn't really Phillips' style. One week after his dramatic rescue by Navy SEALs, Phillips finally landed at Burlington International Airport on April 17. His wife, Andrea, and their children Mariah, 19, and Daniel, 20, rushed into his plane to hug him as dozens of fans huddled nearby with signs and American flags. Many more waited on front porches and tree-lined streets to cheer as state troopers escorted the family back to their modest white farmhouse. Once there, Phillips dug into a home-cooked meal he must have dreamed of—chicken potpie, cold beer and his mother-in-law's brownies. "I am just a bit part in this story," he insisted at the airport, the only time he spoke publicly. "I am not the hero. The military is the hero."
Several Alabama crewmen who spoke with PEOPLE tell a different story. "It is because of his professionalism that we made it out of there," says third mate Colin Wright, 42. As four armed pirates climbed aboard the U.S.-flagged cargo ship early on April 8, most of the 19 crewmen followed procedure and locked themselves in rooms below deck. Phillips stayed on the bridge, and when a pirate demanded he summon the crew, he made the announcement—but did not use the pre-arranged code word that would have signalled crewmen that it was safe to come out. "He thought on his feet," says third engineer John Cronin, 47. "He let us know it would be best to remain in place."
Phillips wasn't the only hero. A.T.M. Zahid Reza, 44, and another crewman subdued one of the pirates, who was then used as a bargaining chip in a deal Phillips worked out with the pirates: They would swap him for the captured Somali and flee the Alabama in its lifeboat. When Phillips learned Cronin and another crewman had hatched a risky plan to attack the pirates with a hammer and knives, "he discouraged us from trying to overpower them," says Cronin.
Instead Phillips went with the pirates, who reneged on their promise to let him go and held him hostage in the lifeboat—setting the stage for Navy SEAL snipers aboard a U.S. warship to shoot the Somalis and rescue him on April 12. The low-key Phillips spent his first few days in Underhill holed up with his family; he's talked about going to see the Red Sox with Shane Murphy sometime soon, and on April 28 his beloved Boston Celtics will honor him at a game. Beyond that, friends say, it's unlikely he'll approve any celebration bigger than a pig roast or potluck supper. "He's all business," says Murphy, who joked with Phillips about who would play him in a movie—"I said Harrison Ford and Sean Connery"—before turning serious. "You are a hero, make no mistake," he told the man who saved him. "I have a lot of respect for you, Cap."
- Judy Rakowsky/Underhill,
- Kristen Mascia/New York City,
- K.C. Baker/New York City,
- Susan Keating/Washington,
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