NORFOLK, Va. – The shipping captain liberated from Somali pirates Sunday after a swift firefight that killed three of his captors called the U.S. Navy Seals and others who worked to rescue him "heroes," his boss said.
At a news conference, Maersk Line President and CEO John Reinhart read a quote from 53-year-old Richard Phillips on the rescue: "John, I'm just the byline. The heroes are the Navy, the Seals and those that have brought me home."
Reinhart said he talked to Phillips not long after he was rescued from a lifeboat where he had drifted for days in the Indian Ocean with his captors. Reinhart said Phillips was doing well and preparing to return home in the next couple days along with his crew.
President Obama said the courage shown by the captain, whose crew members aboard the Maersk Alabama said he offered himself as a hostage in return for their safety, was "a model for all Americans."
U.S. officials said Phillips was freed unharmed in an effort that killed three of the four pirates who had been holding him off the coast of Africa.
Reinhart called it a good moment and a great day for the nation, the industry, the military and for Phillips' family.
"Richard exemplifies some of the best traditions and behaviors and skills of an American merchant mariner," Reinhart said. "He's a leader of men. He's a brave and courageous man. He persevered through difficult times and he's shown real heroism."
Crew members said as pirates hauled themselves on board, shooting in the air, Phillips told them to lock themselves in a cabin and surrendered himself to keep them safe. The pirates held Phillips of Underhill, Vt., hostage in an enclosed lifeboat for days while U.S. warships stood guard.
On Friday, the captain jumped out of the lifeboat and tried to swim to freedom but was recaptured, according to U.S. Defense Department officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk about the unfolding operations.
Reinhart said the 19-member crew was challenged with the order to leave the captain behind and head for safe harbor in Mombasa, Kenya, where they arrived Saturday night.
"But as mariners, they took the order to preserve the ship and they knew the Navy would preserve their captain, so they did that tough choice and they took the ship away," he said.
The company will arrange to bring the crew and captain home over the next couple days, Reinhart said.
"When I look at it, I think Richard has exhibited the true spirit of an American, and I'm proud today to be an American, as every day," Reinhart said.