MANATEE — A self-described “regular working guy,” Ken Quinn lived in anonymity on a quiet street in Lakewood Ranch until two weeks ago.
But he came home to a hero’s welcome Tuesday, along with his wife, Zoya, and their sons, Jason, 3, and Justin, 2 months.
When the family strode down a concourse at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport to face a battery of reporters and cameras, fresh from their JetBlue flight from New York, strangers standing a few feet away cheered and applauded.
It was a visceral reaction of relief and celebration to how Quinn, second mate of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, and the rest of the crew stood up to Somali pirates and thwarted an attempted hijacking.
The Quinn family felt a similar loving embrace when they arrived in a long black limousine to a sign-waving, flag-waving crowd at Lakewood Ranch Main Street. He stepped up on a stage outside MacAllisters Restaurant and fielded questions for more than 50 minutes.
Even though Quinn had been interviewed by some of the national TV networks in New York, interviews which he handled with aplomb and good humor, he seemed to want to pinch himself to make sure it was all real.
“I just never expected this. I don’t feel like parade material,” said Quinn, wearing khaki pants and a pull-over shirt, while holding a squirming Jason.
Quinn’s sister, Judi Quinn-Roy, came to the homecoming at Lakewood Ranch.
“I am just so proud of him. He was physically and mentally exhausted” by the ordeal off Somalia, Quinn-Roy said.
His actions helped save the other crew members and he also helped save a pirate’s life by giving him first aid, she said.
“He helped keep the crew calm and he kept any more harm from coming to the (captured) pirate,” she said.
Quinn said he was aware of how the community rallied around Zoya and their sons.
“It’s overwhelming,” said a grateful Quinn. “It’s an incredible feeling. It really made me feel like a part of this community.”
Quinn praised Capt. Richard Phillips, who gave himself up as a hostage in exchange for the lives of his crew and allowing the Maersk Alabama to go free.
“He’s got some guts. He’s got a lot of character,” Quinn said of Phillips.
Pirates held Phillips aboard a drifting lifeboat for several days, shadowed by the Maersk Alabama and U.S. warships. Elite Navy SEALs finally ended the standoff by shooting three of the pirates dead, fearing Phillips’ life was endangered.
Quinn also praised the rest of the crew for resisting the pirates and taking one of them prisoner. “They were under the gun and were equally heroes,” he said.
Fourteen of the crew were locked in a safe room for 10 hours where pirates couldn’t reach them. At some point, the ships’ chief engineer jumped a pirate in the dark and pushed him into the safe room.
“So now we’ve got the pirate leader as prisoner and they have two of our guys,” Quinn said. The stalemate led the pirates to agree to exchange the rest of the crew for Phillips.
Asked if he would be willing to participate in a movie about the experience, Quinn cracked, “Yeah, I’m up for that,” and suggested that “Richard Gere sort of looks like me.”
While Quinn’s sense of humor never left him, he acknowledged that it was always a thought that he might never see his family again, given America’s resistance to paying ransom.
As to what should happen to Abdi Wali Abdulqadir Muse, the Somali pirate whose injuries he treated and who arrived in New York this week to face piracy charges, Quinn said he would leave that to the legal system to decide.
“It’s beyond my pay grade,” Quinn said.
Merchant crews lack the authority to effectively repulse pirates, and shooting one could lead to nothing but legal problems for the crew member trying to defend his ship, Quinn said.
Zoya Quinn was content to stand aside and let her husband do the talking. When the family left their JetBlue flight and walked to meet the press, several women in a security-checkpoint line yelled, “Welcome home!”
Quinn turned around, smiled and waved, while Zoya videotaped the experience on a camcorder.
Bob Cozzi, of Bradenton, who was on the flight with the Quinns, said, “When we first got on the plane, they made an announcement that he was returning home. Everyone applauded. Everybody was delighted and smiling. It was a real pleasure,” Cozzi said.
Zoya, who wore a white T-shirt that read, “I love NY”, on the flight, made a quick change of clothes into a dress when she arrived at home.
Asked about how it felt to be home, Zoya said, “It’s great, but we had only five minutes to drop our bags.”
She said the experience made her stronger and made her realize the daily dangers her husband and crew members face.
Terry Longpre, of Ellenton, was among those who greeted the Quinns. Learning that Ken Quinn was a motorcycle enthusiast, Longpre invited Quinn to ride with him.
Quinn said he couldn’t wait to spend more time with his family and ride his motorcycle. The past few days, he said, have been “pretty hectic.”
He also said he plans to continue his career.
“I can’t change now. I’ll go back,” he said. “I’m hoping that we have something more to fight back with.”
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be reached at 708-7916. Natalie Neysa Alund, Herald reporter, can be contacted at 748-0411, ext. 7095.