Underhill neighbors track fate of man captured by pirates

04/09/09 6:22PM By Steve Zind
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(Host)  If his neighbors in Underhill were unaware of what Richard Phillips does for work, they know now.

Ever since news broke Wednesday that Phillips was taken hostage by pirates off the coast of Somalia, Underhill residents -- and the rest of the world -- have learned all about the dangers at sea.

VPR's Steve Zind reports.

"That's $10.01..."

(Zind)  In a small town like Underhill, which is gradually transitioning from a farm to a bedroom community, a place like the Wells General Store is still where you can go to catch up on the local news.

For the moment, though, that news is from another part of the world.  The headline in the newspapers stacked by the cash register reads "Underhill Man Held by Pirates."

On the television screen there's a photograph of someone people around here know: Richard Phillips.

The store is quiet now, but owner Laura Wells says people have been stopping in to see if there is further news about Phillips.

(Wells) "Everybody asking what I know because I obviously have the TV on, keeping track of what's going on, just hoping and praying everything works out."

(Zind) The store is just down the road from the Phillips house, where family and friends have gathered. Reporters spent much of the day outside in the spring mud along the road, waiting.

(Phone ringing)

(Zind) Neighbor Michael Willard has been fielding calls from friends concerned about Phillips.  Willard might have a better idea than most here about Phillips' situation, because he's also a member of the Merchant Marine.  Willard's ship that carries coal up and down the east coast.  The two work for the same company and Willard says the word among the people he's talked to who know Phillips professionally is that he's a capable, level-headed captain.

(Willard) "Richard at home is a real laid back, easy going, funny guy and I understand that on the ship that he's all business. I was not surprised that he would have given himself up. That's his primary responsibility is the safety of the ship and the crew with the crew being first."

(Zind) Willard says he and Phillips play golf every week when they're both home. In the wintertime, the 55-year-old Phillips snowboards.  The two often talk shop, although Phillips has said little about the dangers of sailing off the coast of Africa.

Willard was the first to call Phillips' wife Andrea Wednesday to tell her her husband's ship had been boarded by Somali pirates. 

He says he imagines Phillips is staying calm and probably worrying about how his wife and his children are dealing with the situation.

(Willard) "What's Susan dealing with right now, what's Andrea doing right now.  Is she ok, how is she dealing with this."

(Zind)  Willard says Phillips is no stranger to dangerous waters.  Before he began sailing off the Somali coast, he spent time in the Persian Gulf on a ship that carried military supplies.

Willard says he's optimistic Phillips will return home safely and he looks forward to hearing Phillips firsthand account of the ordeal. 

(Willard) "The story will be wonderful, because he's a wonderful storyteller."

(Zind)  For now, though, Willard, and the rest of Phillips' family and friends wait and hope.  

For VPR News, I'm Steve Zind in Underhill.


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