- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 16, 2009

UNDERHILL, VT. (AP) - Five days after being rescued from the clutches of Somali pirates, cargo ship captain Richard Phillips is headed home. And the “Welcome Home” balloons and signs are already up.

The 53-year-old sea captain, who was held hostage for five days after the aborted hijacking of his ship, was expected to fly to Vermont in a chartered airplane, arriving Friday afternoon at Burlington International Airport before being taken to Underhill.

“He’s our hero,” said resident David Villeneuve, who put up signs in his yard to welcome Phillips. “He’s the best thing to happen to the U.S. in a while.”

The crew members of Phillips’ ship, the Maersk Alabama, flew into Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., early Thursday.

Phillips, who was originally supposed to fly with them, was delayed when the USS Bainbridge, which was carrying him after his rescue by Navy SEALs, diverted to help another pirated ship. He left Kenya on an executive jet, the first step of the long-awaited journey home.

George Bacigalupo, general manager of Atlantic Aviation, which handles corporate and private aircraft flying into Burlington International Airport, said a plane carrying Phillips was expected about 4:30 p.m. Friday.

It wasn’t immediately disclosed what kind of homecoming Phillips’ family and friends had in store once he returns to the small rural community at the foot of Mount Mansfield. There was no immediate plan for a parade or public celebration.

“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.

But many were giddy with anticipation Thursday.

At Poker Hill Arts, an after-school art program for elementary school students, owner Chris Gluck and her charges put the finishing touches on a banner before fastening it to the wooden porch of the Underhill Country Store.

The 18-foot-long banner, made of tar paper, added “Captain Phillips” beneath one erected Monday that said “Welcome Home.” Both left plenty of room inside the white block letters for people to write their greetings with pens tied to them.

“Welcome Home Capt. Phillips (Biggest Celebrity in Underhill),” read one scribbled note.

“Richard, glad you came out of this safe you are a good man with high standards. More Americans should be like you,” said another.

“It’s just really exciting that he’s coming home,” said Nate King, 10, pointing to an inscription by his family. “He’s going to be very surprised when he sees it.”

For many in Underhill, the only dilemma was how to balance their excitement with the Phillips family’s need for privacy.

“Even if the family says they don’t want something, there will be people who feel a need to express their joy,” said Town Constable Jennifer Silpe. “It isn’t because anyone wants to interfere with their privacy or be disrespectful, it’s just that they feel compelled to express their excitement that he’s home.”

Even Phillips’ home was showing its colors. Besides the yellow ribbons that neighbors and friends fastened to the white picket fence outside while he was being held, three yellow-and-greeen helium balloons reading “Welcome Home” flapped in a stiff breeze Thursday.

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