ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, Md – The crew of the Maersk Alabama returned to their celebrating families in the United States early Thursday, and the captain they praised as a hero finally reached land in Kenya after his five-day ordeal as a captive of Somali pirates.
"I'm just so relieved and overwhelmed that it's over," third engineer John Cronan told NBC's "Today" morning show after arriving in Maryland on an overnight flight from Mombasa, Kenya. "I'm home now."
The crewmen were greeted at Andrews Air Force Base around 1 a.m. EDT (0500 GMT) by several dozen family members who crowded onto the wet tarmac near the arriving plane, waving small flags in the unseasonably cool air. Shipping company employees erected a banner near the runway adorned with yellow ribbons, reading "Welcome Home Maersk Alabama."
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The crowd erupted in cheers and whistles and applause as the crewmen, carrying bags and belongings, climbed down a ramp from the plane to hugs and kisses from family members.
After they disembarked the charter flight from Kenya, one crewman, carrying a child toward the terminal, shouted, "I'm happy to see my family."
Another exclaimed, "God bless America."
Second mate Ken Quinn told ABC's "Good Morning America" that the hero's welcome was unexpected. "I was just a worker doing my job," he said. "If you're a movie star or something you expect that stuff every day, but just Joe Blow on the street, it doesn't happen to us."
Missing was the Alabama's skipper, who arrived in Mombasa, Kenya, on Thursday aboard the U.S. Navy destroyer that had saved him. Hours after the crew members reunited with their families in the United States, the USS Bainbridge brought Capt. Richard Phillips to the Mombasa harbor, blaring out strains of "Sweet Home Alabama." The destroyer hoisted the U.S. flag as it arrived.
Phillips' wife, Andrea, and two children were still home in Vermont and did not know when or where they would meet him, according to her mother, Catherine Coggio.
"We're just so thankful that things have turned out the way they have," Coggio told The Associated Press by phone from her home in Richmond, Vermont.
A charter plane was on standby to whisk Phillips home, said a security official at Mombasa airport who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
At Andrews Air Force Base, the crewmen quickly entered the terminal with their families, where a reception area was set aside for their privacy. They were then bused to the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center about 10 miles (16 kilometers) away, where they spent the night.
One week ago, pirates took over the Alabama briefly before the captain surrendered himself in exchange for the safety of his 19-member crew. Phillips was freed Sunday after five days of being held hostage in a lifeboat when elite U.S. Navy snipers on the destroyer USS Bainbridge killed three of his captors.
The Alabama crew had scuffled with the pirates, wounding one of them with an ice pick, in taking back control of their ship. The bandits fled the ship with Phillips as their captive, holding him in the lifeboat in a high-stakes standoff until the sharpshooters took action.
"God Bless Captain Richard Phillips. He is the reason we made it home," Cronan said. "His actions and his professionalism on at least two separate occasions prevented me from being killed."
Cronan said the crew never surrendered their ship to the pirates: "I saw acts of courage and bravery in my shipmates that truly made me proud to be an American merchant seaman."
The Bainbridge was diverted Tuesday to chase pirates attacking a second U.S. cargo ship, delaying Phillips' homecoming. The cargo ship, the Liberty Sun, escaped after sustaining damage from automatic weapons fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
Quinn said Thursday that he'd have second thoughts about sailing again through pirate-infested waters. "It would be good to be armed ... but if we start shooting at them they might start killing more seamen," he said.