OXON HILL, Maryland – Crew members of the U.S. cargo ship held by Somali pirates off the coast of Africa last week returned to American soil Thursday morning, recounting the harrowing ordeal and pushing for better protection against hijackings in the dangerous Horn of Africa sea lanes.
Two of the crew members spoke to the media at the airport, describing the attack as "scary."
"All we had were knives," crew member William Rios told FOX News. "They had AK-47s."
Just a few hours after arriving in the rain at a Maryland military base, crew members of the of the Maersk Alabama awoke to sunny skies and rejoicing families. They were full of praise for their sea captain — Richard Phillips — who was still in Kenya awaiting a trip back home.
"We need more security and more patrols in the waterway," said Rios. While he said he wasn't afraid of going back to sea there, Rios said that "it would be better to be armed."
On Thursday morning, the roughly 20 new members were still very much in celebratory mode, transformed from agony to adulation. They were greeted by throngs of reporters and camera crews at a suburban Maryland hotel.
Their words could best be summed up as a mix of relief and resignation, gratitude for newfound freedom coupled with declarations of determination not to be sidelined by threats of piracy.
"I'm just so relieved and overwhelmed that it's over," third engineer John Cronan said. "I'm home now."
It was a week ago that pirates took over the Maersk Alabama briefly before Phillips 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 U.S. Navy SEAL snipers on the destroyer USS Bainbridge killed three of his captors.
The crew earlier 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 SEAL sharpshooters took action.
On Thursday morning, crew member Zahid Reza described a nightmarish incident in which he and ship mates lured a pirate named Abdul to a darkened engine room. During a noisy struggle, Reza said, he stabbed the hostage-taker in the hand.
"I held him, I tied his hands and tied his legs. He was fighting me," Reza said. "There was a lot of yelling shouting and screaming. I was attempting to kill him. He was scared. He said he was planning to ask for $3 million. I told him, 'You're a Muslim and I'm a Muslim.' "
Second mate Ken Quinn said 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.
The crewmen initially were greeted around 1 a.m. local time 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."
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, one crewman, carrying a child toward the terminal, shouted, "I'm happy to see my family."
Another exclaimed, "God bless America."
Missing was the Alabama's skipper, who finally arrived back on land 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 U.S., the USS Bainbridge brought Phillips to the Mombasa harbor, blaring out strains of "Sweet Home Alabama." The destroyer hoisted the U.S. flag as it arrived.
Phillips plans to spend Thursday night on the Bainbridge because "he is among people he knows, that's how he wants it," said Maersk shipping line spokesman Gordan van Hook. He would not say when Phillips planned to fly home.
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.
FOX News' Malini Wilkes and The Associated Press contributed to this report.