ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, Md. – A rainy morning outside the nation's capital couldn't dampen the spirits of the crew of the Maersk Alabama, who returned to the U.S. a week after their ordeal off the coast of Somalia.
After they disembarked the charter flight from Kenya early Thursday, one crewman, carrying a child toward the terminal, shouted, "I'm happy to see my family."
Another exclaimed, "God bless America."
The crewmen were greeted at Andrews Air Force Base around 1 a.m. EDT by several dozen family members who crowded onto the wet tarmac near the arriving plane, waving small flags in the unseasonably cool air. A bevy of reporters and cameras captured the scene, which included a banner adorned with yellow ribbons reading "Welcome Home Maersk Alabama" that shipping company employees erected near the runway.
The crowd erupted in cheers and whistles and applause as the crewman, carrying bags and belongings, climbed down a ramp from the plane to hugs and kisses from family members.
Missing was the Alabama's skipper, who was still aboard the U.S. Navy destroyer that had saved him and which still was chasing pirates off the east coast of Africa.
The crewmen did not stop to talk with reporters and quickly entered the terminal with their families, where a reception area was set aside for their privacy.
The crew was bused to the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center about 10 miles away, where they were to spend the night.
Before the crew left Kenya, third mate Colin Wright said he looked forward to hugging his mother when he touched down and advised everyone to embrace theirs.
"Everybody out there give your mother a hug," he said. "Yeah, don't wait. Life is precious. And what a beautiful world."
One week ago, pirates took over the Alabama briefly before Capt. Richard Phillips surrendered himself in exchange for the safety of his 19-member crew. Phillips was freed Sunday after five days of being held hostage in a lifeboat when U.S. Navy SEAL snipers on the destroyer USS Bainbridge killed three of his captors.
The Alabama crew had scuffled with the pirates, wounding one of them with an ice pick, in taking back control of their ship. The bandits fled the ship with Phillips as their captive, holding him in the lifeboat in a high-stakes standoff until the SEAL sharpshooters took action.
The Bainbridge was diverted Tuesday to chase pirates attacking a second U.S. cargo ship, thereby delaying Phillips' homecoming. The cargo ship, the Liberty Sun, escaped after sustaining damage from automatic weapons fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
Another chartered plane was waiting at the Mombasa airport for Phillips, a Kenyan airport official said.
Phillips' wife, Andrea, and two children were still home in Vermont and did not know when or where they would meet him, said her mother, Catherine Coggio.
"We're just so thankful that things have turned out the way they have," Coggio told The Associated Press by phone from her home in Richmond, Vt.