UNDERHILL, Vt. – Relieved and jubilant, a small Vermont town that held its breath for five tense days got ready to welcome back its hero Friday, a shipping captain whose high-seas hostage drama riveted the world.
Richard Phillips, 53, who was freed from his ordeal with Somali pirates on Easter Sunday, was expected to arrive on a chartered jet before being whisked to his home, where the white picket fence in front was festooned with homemade signs, ribbons and bows.
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All around town, the yellow ribbons that came to symbolize Underhill's hope during the days of his captivity fluttered in a spring breeze, with lots of late additions as his arrival drew near.
There was a "Welcome Home Captain" sign in front of Stitch In Time yarn shop, a "Welcome Home Captain Phillips" sign in front of Browns River Middle School and a "Welcome Home Captain Phillips" tar paper sign affixed to a red barn across the street from the family's home.
Just as telling were a pair of posterboard signs on the fence in front of Phillips' modest white farmhouse. "Thank You for Your Prayers," said one. "Please Give Us Some Time as a Family," said another, a polite message to members of the media and anyone else hoping to get close.
"I'm feeling proud," said Louise George, 44, of Underhill, on her way into the town library. "I don't know him personally, but he seems like a great guy."
Phillips was scheduled to return Friday afternoon on a chartered flight arriving at Burlington International Airport.
After a private reunion with family members, he was expected to make a brief statement before being taken to Underhill, about 18 miles away, said Kevin Speers, a spokesman for Maersk shipping lines, based in Norfolk, Va. After that, they have no immediate plans to speak to the media, according to Speers.
There was no immediate plan for a parade or public celebration, owing to the family's status as somewhat-reluctant celebrities.
"We're respecting the family's wishes and waiting to see what they'd like to do," said Kari Papelbon, the town's zoning administrator.
Other crew members marked homecomings this week, as well. On Sunday, just days after returning to his home in New York City's Harlem neighborhood, William Rios will be in the pews at Second St. John Baptist Church.
The Rev. Robert Jones said that he has spoken to Rios since his return and that he agreed to speak during the morning service.
Jones also said Rios told him about his ordeal in a telephone conversation.
"He was very afraid," Jones said. "He said, 'I was afraid because I didn't know what was going to happen.' He's thanking God, and we're thanking God."