Crew members of the ship celebrate after their captain was released, on… (Sayyid Axim / Associated…)
WASHINGTON AND DJIBOUTI — After days of tense negotiations, the U.S. Navy rescued an American sea captain in seconds Sunday, with snipers shooting three Somali pirates who officials feared were about to kill him.
The commanding officer of the U.S. guided missile destroyer Bainbridge had received approval from President Obama to attempt a rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips by force if his life appeared to be in imminent danger after five days of captivity off the coast of Somalia.
With the seas in the Gulf of Aden getting choppier and the increasingly agitated captors pointing an automatic weapon at Phillips, Cmdr. Frank Castellano decided he had no other option, Navy Vice Adm. William Gortney said.
Castellano gave the green light, and sharpshooters on the fantail of the naval warship opened fire on the partially exposed pirates aboard the small enclosed lifeboat.
Phillips, who was bound and standing, was not injured in the rescue, which occurred just after dark at 7:19 p.m., said Gortney, commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. He gave an account of the rescue operation and the events leading up to it in a Pentagon conference call Sunday evening from the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain.
Phillips' three captors, who were armed with AK-47 assault rifles and small-caliber pistols, probably were killed instantaneously by the snipers. "We pay a lot for their training and we earned a good return on their investment tonight," Gortney said.
A fourth pirate, who was aboard the Bainbridge negotiating with the Navy over Phillips' release, was taken into custody by U.S. authorities.
After the rescue, Phillips, 53, was whisked to safety aboard the San Diego-based amphibious assault ship Boxer nearby, given a routine medical evaluation and was "resting comfortably," Gortney said.
Gortney said sailors on the Bainbridge had passed a note to Phillips from his wife, Andrea, that said, "Your family loves you, your family is praying for you, your family is saving a chocolate Easter egg for you unless your son eats it first."
"Well, Mrs. Phillips, keep your son away from those Easter eggs, his dad's headed home," Gortney said.
Phillips was taken hostage Wednesday when the pirates attempted to seize his cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama. On the Boxer, military officials confirmed that the soft-spoken captain had placed himself at risk in an effort to protect his crew, helping fight off the pirates and then offering himself as a hostage.
The pirates kept Phillips aboard the 24-foot lifeboat and repeatedly threatened him. They were seeking millions of dollars in ransom.
"His courage is a model for all Americans," Obama said in a statement released Sunday by the White House.
Asked if he had any message for a public that had been captivated by his ordeal, Phillips was self-effacing.
"The real heroes are the Navy, the Seals, those who have brought me home," he told John Reinhart, president and chief executive of Maersk Line.
Gortney and other military officials said they feared the rescue could provoke retaliation from Somali clans. He said the solution lay in going after the pirates on land in Somalia and other havens where they have flourished amid "lawlessness, lack of government and economic instability."
Local news reports quoted some Somali pirates as saying Sunday that they planned to step up their activities, and that they would kill hostages before they could be killed themselves.
In nearby Mombasa, Kenya, where the Maersk Alabama had arrived Saturday without its captain, the crew erupted in celebration when news of his release came through. Two flares were fired in the air and the ship's horn sounded. Nine crew members, one wrapped in an American flag, came to the stern, pumping their fists.
"He's one of the bravest men I've ever met," one of them shouted to reporters, referring to Phillips. "He's a national hero."
Friends and family in Phillips' hometown of Underhill, Vt., were more subdued. Many said their Easter prayers had been answered; his family asked for privacy. Alison McColl, a family friend, read a brief statement to reporters outside the Phillips home, saying the captain and his wife had spoken by phone.
"I think you can all imagine their joy, and what a happy moment that was for them," said McColl, according to the Associated Press.
In Washington, Obama praised the military and other U.S. officials involved in Phillips' rescue. But he too warned that though the first known hostage-taking of an American merchant seaman in more than a century was over, the broader problem of piracy on the high seas was not.
In his statement, Obama vowed to take steps to prevent such occurrences, especially in the waters off the Horn of Africa.
The Maersk Alabama, an American-flagged and Danish-owned vessel, had been carrying humanitarian aid to Africa. Since the attack, Phillips and his captors had been floating in the life raft, out of fuel and shadowed by U.S. warships.