JERICHO, Vt. – Less than two weeks after the U.S. Navy rescued Capt. Richard Phillips from captivity by Somali pirates, the skipper got a hero's welcome Saturday from a crowd of about 500 of his neighbors and well-wishers from around the northeastern U.S.
"Now I know why I moved to Vermont," Phillips, a U.S. cargo ship captain, said in a thick accent of his native Massachusetts. "It's not just the maple syrup, the foliage and the snowboarding. This is true American community and it's a true caring for each other."
Phillips was skipper of the Maersk Alabama when Somali pirates boarded the ship April 8. The ensuing five-day hostage drama gripped the world's attention and ended Easter Sunday when Navy sharpshooters shot and killed three of the pirates holding him and took a fourth into custody.
All that was a world away Saturday as Phillips' neighbors threw a community picnic for him in the 216-acre park straddling the line between Underhill, where he and his family live, and neighboring Jericho. The weather was unusually fine for Vermont in late April, with sunshine and temperatures in the 80s Fahrenheit.
A covered bridge crosses a stream at the entrance to the park, and by afternoon, a sign saying "Welcome Home Captain Phillips" at one end of the bridge bore hundreds of signatures.
Phillips, dressed in a short-sleeve, blue and white plaid shirt, khakis and a cap from the U.S. Navy ship at the center of his rescue, the USS Bainbridge, spoke briefly, thanking his family, his community and the U.S. military.
"If you see someone in the military in a restaurant or on the street, in an airport, shake their hands and thank them for what they do day in and day out," he said.
Phillips, 53, accepted gifts including a flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol from an aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont flag that had flown over the Statehouse in Montpelier from Gov. Jim Douglas and a six-pack of his favorite beer, Labatt's Blue, from Rep. Peter Welch.
Douglas, who declared Saturday "Captain Richard Phillips Day in Vermont," introduced the sea captain by saying, "I don't think there's any better example of the values and strengths and the indomitable spirit of the people of Vermont" than Phillips.
Several speakers lauded Phillips for offering himself as a hostage to the pirates, thereby keeping his crew out of harm's way. Welch and Leahy aide Chuck Ross read from U.S. House and Senate resolutions describing those events.
After the speeches, Phillips, his wife Andrea and daughter Mariah stood under a party tent greeting well-wishers.
One was Cindy Adams, 49, who had made the more than four-hour trip from North Attleboro, Massachusetts, who said she recently lost her job as a manager in a plastics plant.
"I just wanted to let him know how proud we are, to give him a hug," she said. "We needed a shot in the arm, we needed a story with a happy ending."