WASHINGTON -After days of tense negotiations, the Navy rescue of an American sea captain came in a matter of seconds Sunday when a few sniper bullets killed three Somali pirates who authorities feared were about to kill him.
The commanding officer of the guided-missile destroyer Bainbridge had already received approval from President Barack Obama to attempt a rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips by force if the seafarer's life appeared to be in imminent danger after five days of captivity off the coast of Somalia.
And with the seas becoming choppier and the increasingly agitated captors pointing an automatic weapon at Phillips, Cmdr. Frank Castellano decided he had no other option. The Bainbridge skipper 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 uninjured in the attack, said Navy Vice Adm. William 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 telephone conference from the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain on Sunday evening.
Phillips' three captors, who were armed with AK-47s and small-caliber pistols, most likely were killed instantaneously.
A fourth man who had been holding Phillips captive since the pirates failed Wednesday in their attempt to seize the Maersk Alabama was aboard the Bainbridge negotiating with the Navy at the time. He was taken into custody by U.S. authorities.
After the rescue, Phillips was whisked to safety aboard the nearby amphibious assault ship Boxer, given a routine medical evaluation and was "resting comfortably," Gortney said.
Once he was there, military officials confirmed that the soft-spoken captain had placed his own safety at risk in an effort to protect his crew, helping fight off the initial pirate attack and then later offering himself as a hostage.
"His courage is a model for all Americans," Obama said in a statement Sunday.
Asked if he had any message for a public that had been captivated by his ordeal, Phillips was self-effacing.
"I'm just the byline. The real heroes are the Navy, the SEALs, those who have brought me home," he told Maersk Line Ltd. President and CEO John Reinhart. In nearby Mombasa, Kenya, where the Maersk Alabama had arrived on Saturday without its captain, the crew erupted in celebration when news of his release came through. Two flares were fired into the air, and the ship's horn sounded. Nine crew members came to the stern, pumping their fists skyward, one of them wrapped in a U.S. flag.
"He's one of the bravest men I've ever met," one crew member shouted.
Alison McColl, a family friend, read a brief statement to reporters outside the Phillips home in Underhill, Vt., saying the captain and his wife, Andrea, 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.