UNDERHILL, Vt. – The family of hijacked ship captain Richard Phillips gathered in his Vermont farmhouse, anxiously watching news reports and taking telephone calls from the U.S. State Department to learn if he would be freed by Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa.
"We are on pins and needles," said Gina Coggio, 29, half-sister of Phillips' wife, Andrea, as she stood on the porch of his one-story house on Wednesday in a light snow. "I know the crew has been in touch with their own family members, and we're hoping we'll hear from Richard soon."
Phillips, 55, was taken hostage Wednesday after his unarmed U.S. crew wrested control of the Maersk Alabama from the pirates and sent them fleeing to a lifeboat — with Phillips as their bargaining chip.
Phillips surrendered himself to the pirates to secure the safety of the crew, according to Coggio.
"What I understand is that he offered himself as the hostage," she said. "That is what he would do. It's just who he is and his response as a captain."
A U.S. warship was on the scene a few hours before dawn and officials were waiting to see what happened when the sun came up as crew members negotiated with the pirates for the captain's return.
Phillips, an avid skier and father of two college-age children, was described by his sister-in-law and neighbors as a man who spent months at sea but was deeply involved in his family's life when he was home in this rural community (pop. 3,080), located about 18 miles east of Burlington, at the foot of Mount Mansfield, Vermont's highest peak.
"He's always at sea, so we don't get to see him much," said Terry Aiken, 66, who lives across River Road from the Phillipses. "But you see him being a husband at home when he's here," said Aiken, who earlier in the day had offered his family's support to Andrea Phillips, 51, who works as a nurse at a Burlington hospital.
"Oh, I'm just sick to death about it," said Jackie Stoner, 39, who lives down the road. "They're wonderful people, and I can't imagine what they're going through."
Coggio described Phillips as an outgoing man known for his storytelling.
"Andrea said before, 'If the Somalis there speak English, he'll be having them laughing at some kind of story,"' Coggio said.
Earlier Wednesday, Mrs. Phillips said her husband left home at the end of March and joined the ship last week.
"I knew exactly where he was," she said. "I just got an e-mail from him and knew he was heading into Mombasa (a city on the coast of Kenya). He had even made the comment that pirate activity was picking up."
She said she always worried about reports of pirates.
"I always hoped it wasn't going to happen to us," she said.
Asked if the family had a message for his captors, Coggio said: "Let him go. Let him come home. Let him go. We want Richard back."