"I'm just so relieved and overwhelmed that it's over," third engineer John Cronan said Thursday after arriving at Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland on an overnight flight from Mombasa, Kenya. "I'm home now."
The crewmen were greeted at the 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. Shipping company employees erected a banner near the runway adorned with yellow ribbons, reading "Welcome Home Maersk Alabama."
The crowd erupted in cheers and whistles and applause as the crewmen, carrying bags and belongings, climbed down a ramp from the plane to hugs and kisses from family members.
After they disembarked the charter flight from Kenya, one crewman, carrying a child toward the terminal, shouted, "I'm happy to see my family."
Another exclaimed, "God bless America."
Robert Vaughan of Dallas, the brother of 3rd Mate Colin Wright, said he was not allowed to relay details of what his brother told him. But, he said, Wright plans to go back to sea.
"He'll be back out there. That's his job," Vaughan said. Asked how his brother felt about security for crews, Vaughan said, "Something needs to be done to protect the crews."
Vaughan said it was a "great reunion" when the crew returned to their families.
The crew was taken to the Gaylord Hotel, part of the Washington Harbor business complex here, and was meeting with relatives and poised to give interviews to reporters Thursday.
Second mate Ken Quinn told ABC's "Good Morning America" that the hero's welcome was unexpected. "I was just a worker doing my job," he said. "If you're a movie star or something you expect that stuff every day, but just Joe Blow on the street, it doesn't happen to us."
Quinn's sister told CBS' The Early Show that her brother, who lives in Bradenton, Fla., had e-mailed her that "he's having nightmares about being in the dark room where they were hiding and the pirates shooting into the dark."
Missing was the Alabama's skipper, who finally arrived back on land in Mombasa, Kenya, on Thursday aboard the U.S. Navy destroyer that had saved him. Hours after the crew members reunited with their families in the United States, the USS Bainbridge brought Capt. Richard Phillips to the Mombasa harbor, blaring out strains of "Sweet Home Alabama." The destroyer hoisted the U.S. flag as it arrived.
Phillips plans to spend Thursday night on the Bainbridge because "he is among people he knows, that's how he wants it," said Maersk shipping line spokesman Gordan van Hook.
The Early Show learned through exclusive video of Maersk CEO John Reinhart addressing the crew and their families at Andrews Air Force Base that Phillips would be returning to the U.S. on Friday night. He did not specify where he would be arriving.
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 can hardly wait for him to be back, and for a lot of this to be resolved," Coggio told The Associated Press Thursday morning by phone from her home in Richmond, Vermont. "I think the hardest part is still ahead. They have to deal with this, and it won't be easy."
Coggio said her daughter had asked what kind of welcome celebration she thought Phillips would want, and she advised her: "Nothing." The family wants their life back to normal, without "all this hoopla," Coggio said.
A charter plane was on standby to whisk Phillips home, said a security official at Mombasa airport who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
One week ago, pirates took over the Alabama briefly before the captain 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 elite U.S. Navy 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 sharpshooters took action.
"God Bless Captain Richard Phillips, he is the reason we made it home," Cronan said on NBC's "Today" show. "His actions and his professionalism on at least two separate occasions prevented me from being killed."
Cronan said the crew never surrendered their ship to the pirates: "I saw acts of courage and bravery in my shipmates that truly made me proud to be an American merchant seaman."
The Bainbridge was diverted Tuesday to chase pirates attacking a second U.S. cargo ship, delaying Phillips' homecoming. The cargo ship, the Liberty Sun, escaped after sustaining damage from automatic weapons fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
Quinn said Thursday that he'd have second thoughts about sailing again through pirate-infested waters. "It would be good to be armed ... but if we start shooting at them they might start killing more seamen," he said.