A wonderful homecoming

Waiting anxiously for her father’s flight to land at Burlington International Airport, Castleton State College student Mariah Phillips felt like she was 5 years old again. Since they were kids, Mariah, 18, and her brother Danny, 20, have had a tradition of bringing their father to the airport and watching his plane take off. They would also be there to watch it land.

Sitting in the tiny office of the Castleton State College Spartan on Thursday, the affable teen smiles as she fondly recollects a game she and her brother played as children.

“Waiting at the airport for him — whoever saw his plane first, got a reward — a dollar or something.”

Although Mariah has watched her father’s plane hit the runway many times in her life, the landing on April 17 was different.

“Am I allowed to run?” she recalls asking her mom and others around her. “I was too excited to walk.”

Mariah, eyes twinkling, gestures with her hands as she describes how she ran to her father, and jumped on him.

“I grabbed him and he hugged me and said, ‘Hey, Riah.'”

Mariah’s father, Richard Phillips, captain of the U.S. ship Maersk Alabama, was taken hostage on April 8 after Somalian pirates attacked the ship. After five days tied-up on a 28-foot lifeboat with a gun to his back, a very modest Phillips was rescued by Navy snipers who killed three pirates and took another into custody.

“I am just ecstatic that he is home and he is safe,” Mariah said. “While the whole thing was going on it felt like it wasn’t real — kind of an out of body experience.”

Who is Captain Phillips?

On Route 15 near the Phillips’ house, there are these signs — magnetic ones where the letters can be shuffled around to say different things. Recently, they were changed to read: “Welcome Home Captain Phillips.”

Driving home, Mariah’s mother, Andrea, pointed them out to her husband.

“Look, Richard, you made the signs,” Mariah quotes her mother as saying.

“Oh no, not the signs,” Capt. Phillips replied, “anything but the signs!”

Capt. Phillips is a private man who has shrugged off the hero label that the nation has adhered to him. He has yet to do the media circuit, and Mariah said he probably won’t. This has left many wondering, who is Richard Phillips?

Mariah, a self-proclaimed “Daddy’s girl” who calls her father by his first name because it “seems to get his attention better than Dad,” glows when she talks about him.

“Richard’s a big jokester,” she said, laughing. “Out on the sea he’s serious, but at home. he plays basketball, he loves watching the Celtics and Seinfeld. In the winter, he and I go snowboarding. He always loses me in the woods, and then he’ll pop back up and be like, ‘Where’d you go?’ Where’d I go?” Mariah laughs, “He lost me! I was pulling myself out of a foot of powder.”

And while he may shun the hero label, Mariah is quick to point out that he is one – and was one to her even before his capture.

“He’s always been my hero. He’s my dad. He’s my best friend. If he helped me with my math homework, he’d be a hero for that,” she said.

But, having to spend five days captive in a lifeboat, you have to wonder what was going through Capt. Phillips’ head.

And you’ll have to keep wondering.

He has not talked about his ordeal to the media, or even to his family, Mariah said.

“When he got home.it was like he never left,” Mariah said. “He was the same as always, just joking and laughing. I guess I expected him to be a little quieter, but he just wound down, had a few beers.”

Finally at home in Underhill, Vt., he had a hankering for chicken-pot pie, brownies and a couple of Labatt Blues, she said.

The only real talk of the ordeal dealt with his glasses. She told of her family joking about the first picture the media had taken of her father after his rescue.

“I noticed he looked very exhausted in that picture, but Mom noticed that he wasn’t wearing his glasses and she said he probably lost them,’ Mariah said. As it turns out, he did lose them in his failed attempt to jump from the lifeboat.

What do you do with a captured pirate?

Mariah says that she doesn’t know what should happen to the pirate who was captured the day that her father was rescued.

The pirate in U.S. custody, Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse, was charged in New York, where he is currently facing the maximum sentence of life in prison.

Perhaps surprisingly, she admits that she does have a little sympathy for Muse.

“In these times, it’s very sad to know that people resort to piracy to get by, but it doesn’t give anyone an excuse,” she said with a hint of anger.

Mariah discussed how Somalia is an unfortunate country, but that piracy is nothing new. What happened to her father is a huge wake-up call and should be taken as such, she said.

“I’ve always heard about pirate activity from my dad,” she said. “But I never heard about it from our government or the media.”

She questions why a personal attack on our country is a bigger deal than when it happens to ships from other countries.

“You don’t hear about those other ships,” she said. “Something needs to happen. Something needs to be fixed, but it won’t take a day.”

But about this particular pirate, Mariah believes what goes around comes around. “It won’t be on my watch,” she said, but he’ll get what he deserves

Hounded by the media

Mariah describes her hometown as a small community that likes privacy.

“Mom kept saying, ‘don’t say anything — keep it on the down low.’ We can handle private problems with our family,” Mariah said, “but this was out of control.”

When she says out of control, she is also referring to the media.

At home, Mariah said she disguised herself when she left the house.

“I didn’t leave the house without sunglasses or a hat on!” she said, adding that they also had to stop answering the phone.

Her father’s face has graced covers of newspapers and magazines and fronted countless online web pages across the world. It’s unwanted ink for the family, but they can joke about it.

“People magazine,” Mariah laughs, “it’s what women read when they’re sitting in a hair salon getting their hair dried. He was on the cover of People this week and Mom said, ‘Look Richard, women will be looking at you while they’re getting their hair done!'”

Regarding the family’s isolation from the media, communication Professor David Blow said that as a journalist, he’s a bit conflicted, because he enjoys telling great stories, and Capt. Phillips has one great story. “But I respect him. He sounds like a fun guy to sit and have a beer and a laugh with.”

Mariah said it was frustrating that the media wouldn’t leave her family alone.

“The Early Show sent us hats in the mail,” she said. “Good Morning America kept sending me messages on Facebook.”

The media also hounded Castleton State College, where Mariah is a graphic design student.

The school administration — as well as some students and faculty, fielded calls from national media. No one gave out any information in exchange for his or her own 15-minutes of fame.

Castleton’s president David Wolk said that a major national news network was interested in using footage of the Castleton campus on the evening news as a backdrop for a story and the college declined.

“Mariah deserved her privacy to be protected and respected,” Wolk said. “I would want the same for my own daughter if she were in a similar situation, so that’s how we approached it.”

The effort wasn’t lost on Mariah.

“I appreciate so much what President Wolk did,” Mariah said. “And I’m so thankful that the school was so persistent about not letting the media on campus. Things get so blown out of proportion. I didn’t want to come back to school and have it be a circus.”

Wolk stated that Mariah is an impressive young woman.

“I have great admiration for the way she conducted herself throughout this ordeal…just like her Dad and the rest of the family,” he said

Blow said it is also refreshing to see how the Phillips family has handled the media attention.

“Some would glom onto these 15 minutes of fame and take it for all it’s worth. They just want to be left alone.”

Mariah said although things are calming down a little, she’s just waiting for the next big headline so her family’s story isn’t in the spotlight at all.

“I can’t wait ’till Octo-mom has 20 kids or something,” she said, “I liked it a lot more when not everyone knew who I was.”

Returning to the high seas

Mariah is sure that her father will be returning to the sea soon.

“He loves the ocean,” she reiterates again and again.

Capt. Phillip’s family is aware of his love for his job, yet, she said there is trepidation about him going back to work.

“Mom told him, ‘Stay in Morrisville pond – don’t go out in any big water,” Mariah said.

When Capt. Phillips will return to work is still up in the air, but he wants to go soon, she said, because if he doesn’t he’ll have to make up the time in the summer.

“And in the summer we go wake boarding and tubing on Lake Champlain,” she said, “and he wants to be around for that,” Mariah said.

As for how his family will feel with Capt. Phillips back in the water, Mariah thinks they will be a little more concerned than in years past.

“When I hit the double-digits, like 10 or 11,” she said, “I would think, ‘He’ll come back, he always comes back.’

Now I’ll be wondering a bit more – what’s going on in those open waters.

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