Hero Captain Richard Phillips was given an honorary holiday at a celebratory picnic near his hometown in Vermont Saturday, days after he admitted he thought he'd die aboard the tiny lifeboat Somali pirates held him captive on.
Vermont officials in Jericho, Vt., near Phillips' hometown of Underhill, declared April 25 "Captain Richard Phillips Day" at a potluck lunch attended by hundreds of Phillips fans who came to praise the skipper for his heroic efforts on the high seas.
At the celebration, Phillips thanked his supporters and the U.S. Navy, who rescued him from the lifeboat after five days onboard, swiftly killing the three armed Somali pirates with three deadly sniper shots.
"I want to thank all Americans who sent me many, many, many, many letters of support, prayer advice and very kind words," ABC News reported Phillips said.
"If you see someone in the military in a restaurant or on the street, shake their hand and thank them for what they do day in and day out," said Phillips, who described his Navy saviors as "superheroes." Phillips wore a baseball cap to the picnic that was emblazoned with the logo of the Navy ship that rescued him from the Somalis.
The Captain said this week in an interview with Matt Lauer that he thought he'd die at the hands of the brazen Somali pirates who held him hostage aboard a small lifeboat in the Indian Ocean -- and that the Navy snipers did an "impossible" job.
As the pirates held an AK-47 to his head, Phillips silently said good-bye to his wife and kids, thinking that he'd never see dry land again, the brave captain said on the "Today" show.
"I didn't think I'd ever get out of that boat," a shaken Phillips said.
Phillips gave himself to the teenaged Somali pirates as a hostage when they boarded his ship April 8 to spare the 21-member crew that'd barricaded itself into a compartment onboard. The pirates abandoned the Alabama and boarded a covered lifeboat, where they remained until Navy sharpshooters started firing.
"The SEALs and the Navy did an impossible job," Phillips said. "They're unbelievable people."
The hero skipper, who kept radio contact with the Alabama, said he initially thought he could escape from the lifeboat -- until his attempt to swim away from his captors after two days onboard was foiled and he was recaptured by the Somalis.
“At the beginning, I did have radio contact with the Maersk Alabama, and I told them, ‘If you see a splash in the water, it's going to be ‘cause I’m coming,'" he said. "I had always expected to escape.”
After he was brought back to the lifeboat, pirates constantly kept a semi-automatic rifle trained on his back, Phillips said.
"There was always a gun on me," he said.
His last moments in the lifeboat were spent praying and thinking about his family, who Phillips said he thought he'd seen for the last time when he boarded the Alabama in early April.
“It was just settling everything,” Phillips said. “Getting ready to die and just settling everything. You know, saying my last thoughts: Andrea, the kids.”
Phillips and the crew of the Maersk Alabama were greeted with national fanfare as they returned home last week to their loved ones.
The alleged leader of the Somali bandits, Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse, arrived in New York City this week, where he is expected to stand trial on piracy charges that could carry a life sentence. A judge ruled that Muse will be charged as an adult although his age has been given as between 15 and 18-years-old.
He was captured after boarding a U.S. Navy vessel to get treatment for an injured hand and to negotiate Phillips' release.
Phillips will testify Thursday about the high-seas ordeal before a U.S. Senate committee that's chaired by Sen. John Kerry.
His interview with Lauer will air on the "Today" show Tuesday, April 28.