Ken Quinn, second mate of the Maersk Alabama and a resident of Lakewood Ranch, arrived back on U.S. soil early this morning to the arms of his wife Zoya and sons Jason, 3, and Justin, two months.
"It's kind of busy, I don't know exactly when we'll be coming home," Quinn said in a phone interview with the Bradenton Herald from his Washington, D.C., hotel room.
Maersk Alabama crew members, with the exception of Capt. Richard Phillips, flew into Andrews Air Force Base about 1 a.m. today. Phillips was originally scheduled to return with his crew, but was onboard the destroyer USS Bainbridge which was diverted to fend off an attack on another merchant ship by Somali pirates.
The Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship, was enroute to Mombassa, Kenya, to deliver an emergency shipment of food when pirates tried to take over the craft. The crew thwarted the takeover by locking themselves in a room and later overpowering some of the pirates. Phillips offered himself as a hostage so that the pirates would leave his crew and ship alone.
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Although Quinn knew he was headed into a dangerous area known for piracy, he said today that he never imagined that he and his shipmates would make international news.
"You would never think that something like this would go on," Quinn said, adding that his only other experience with pirates was in the 1990s, when he witnessed the attempted takeover of another ship near Malaysia.
A possible visit with President Barack Obama is in the works, but is uncertain because Phillips was unable to accompany the rest of the crew back to the U.S., Quinn said.
Phillips reached Mombassa Thursday, with the U.S. destroyer that rescued him docking to the strains of "Sweet Home Alabama." The Lynyrd Skynyrd hit includes the words "I'm coming home to you." The destroyer hoisted the U.S. flag as it arrived. A whirlwind of media interviews is underway with members of the Maresk Alabama. Quinn said he would be heading to New York City with invitations from Good Morning America, 20-20, Larry King, and NBC.
Quinn was hopeful that he might be able to return home by this Sunday. "Tell them I'll see them soon. It will be good to get home."
Quinn sounded very upbeat and happy during the interview, with the sounds of his two young children in the background. "Jason is cranky because he didn't get enough sleep," he said.
Officials at Lakewood Ranch were trying to organize a welcome home event for the Quinn family.
Phillips was freed Sunday by Navy SEAL sharpshooters who killed his three captors with three single shots taken from the Bainbridge amid choppy seas. Phillips' wife, Andrea, and two children were still home in Vermont and did not know when or where they would meet him, according to her mother, Catherine Coggio.
"We're just so thankful that things have turned out the way they have," Coggio told The Associated Press from her home in Richmond, Vt.
A charter plane has been on standby to whisk Phillips home, according to a security official at Mombasa airport who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Phillips' crew members held a joyful reunion with their families early Thursday at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland after a long flight from Mombasa. One crewman, carrying a child toward the terminal, shouted, "I'm happy to see my family!" Another exclaimed, "God bless America."
Earlier Thursday, another U.S. cargo ship, the Liberty Sun, arrived in Mombasa, its bridge damaged by rocket-propelled grenades and its windows shattered by gunfire after a pirate attack Tuesday.
The attack on the Liberty Sun underscored the outlaws' ability to act with impunity despite international naval operations and mounting concern worldwide over how to halt the escalating piracy off the Horn of Africa.
A pirate whose gang attacked the Liberty Sun also claimed his group was targeting American ships and sailors.
"We will seek out the Americans, and if we capture them, we will slaughter them," said a 25-year-old pirate based in the Somali port of Harardhere, who gave only his first name, Ismail. "We will target their ships because we know their flags."
The Liberty Sun's 20 American crew members crew successfully blockaded themselves in the engine room and warded off the attack with evasive maneuvers.
The ship, carrying food aid for hungry Africans - including Somalis - was damaged "pretty badly" on its bridge, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
On Wednesday, French naval forces launched an early-morning attack on a suspected pirate supply ship 550 miles (880 kilometers) east of Mombasa, seizing 11 men and thwarting an attack on the Liberian cargo ship Safmarine Asia, the French Defense Ministry said. No one was injured.
The ministry said the vessel was a larger ship that pirates use to allow their high-speed skiffs to operate hundreds of miles off the coast.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced new diplomatic efforts to freeze the pirates' assets and said the Obama administration will work with shippers and insurers to improve their defenses against pirates.
"These pirates are criminals, they are armed gangs on the sea. And those plotting attacks must be stopped," Clinton said at the State Department.
Clinton did not call for military force, although she mentioned "going after" pirate bases in Somalia, as authorized by the U.N. several months ago. She urged the U.S. and others to "explore ways to track and freeze" pirate ransom money and other funds used in purchases of new boats, weapons and communications equipment.
The measures outlined by Clinton are largely stopgap moves while the administration weighs more comprehensive diplomatic and military action.
Maritime experts say military force alone cannot solve the problem because the pirates operate in an area so vast it renders the flotilla of international warships largely ineffective.
The European Union said Thursday it is boosting its anti-piracy fleet off the Somali coast to 11 ships, with the addition of three Swedish frigates in May. The European force's main task is to escort cargo ships carrying U.N. World Food Program aid to hungry Somalis.
Nearly a dozen countries, including the United States, have anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, off the Somali coast, one of the world's most important shipping areas.
Most hijackings are resolved by shipping companies, which pay million-dollar ransoms and more to get their ships and crews back. They then recoup the money from insurance companies, which charge high premiums to traverse the dangerous waters off Somalia.
The Gulf of Aden, which links the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, is the shortest route from Asia to Europe. More than 20,000 ships cross the vital sea lane every year. It is becoming more dangerous by the day.
In 2003, there were only 21 attacks in these waters. In less than four months this year, there have been 79 attacks, compared with 111 for all of 2008, according to the International Maritime Bureau.
Somali pirates are holding more than 280 foreign crewmen on 15 ships - at least 76 of those sailors captured in recent days.
Halfway across the world, a passing ship rescued 10 sailors left adrift in a lifeboat by Indonesian pirates who hijacked their tugboat in the South China Sea last week. Philippine officials say the pirates held the sailors for six days before setting them adrift on the lifeboat.