In an exclusive interview with Yankee, Andrea Phillips, wife of Captain Richard Phillips, talks about what her life was like in Underhill, Vermont, during her husband’s ordeal last April, when he was captured by Somali pirates.
Andrea Phillips maintains that their newfound celebrity hasn’t changed them. “We are who we are,” she says.
Click here for Audio version of Andrea Phillips interview
Yankee: When was the first time you knew something was different about Richard’s trip last April?
Andrea Phillips: I really didn’t think anything was different until I got the phone call Wednesday morning. It was from our neighbor Mike Willard, who lives up the road, who is also a Merchant Mariner. He called me up and said, “Andrea, what’s the name of Richard’s ship?” I said, “Why, what happened?” Because you don’t just call up a sailor’s wife and ask the name of the ship and not have something happen. Richard always told me that news from a ship is not usually good news. So when you hear something, you know it’s not good. [Mike] said, “I think it was just hijacked. I’ll be right up.” My sister happened to have spent the night with me, and she was getting ready to leave. This was very early in the morning–I think before 7:30. And I ran out to get her, yelling, “Leah, don’t go.”
Y: How much had you and Richard talked about pirates in the months leading up to this?
Andrea Phillips: This was not news. I was not totally blindsided by it. As a matter of fact, it was during February; we had some friends up and we were talking about pirates, and Richard said it’s not a question of if, it’s when.
Y: Did you feel helpless?
Andrea Phillips: I’m not sure “helpless” is a word I would use. I’m a pretty tough cookie, so I didn’t feel too helpless. I was a little scared. Everybody was trying to reassure me: “Okay, Andrea, you know the plan; they’ll want the money, they’ll get the money, and Richard will come home, but it takes a while. It doesn’t happen within days. Sometimes it happens in months.” So I was just trying to get that reassurance. Trying to reassure myself, even. They’re not out for blood. Maybe they’re not that nice to hostages, but they’re not out there to fatally injure them. Also, knowing Richard, I just believed in him, that no matter what the situation was, he’d play it right, he’d know the right thing to do. He’d know the course to take.
I know from my brother, who has sailed with him, he’s a different man on the ship. He’s focused; the ship is his responsibility, and he takes it very seriously. He has a huge responsibility and takes that responsibility very seriously, as he does as a father and [as] a provider in this house. The burden is on his shoulders. You know, last year he broke his neck playing backyard football, and we talked: “What if this doesn’t work out … What if I end up in a wheelchair?” He came very close to being paralyzed. He said, “What would happen if I couldn’t take care of my family?” It’s all about his responsibility. It was his ship, his crew, his cargo, and I just had faith in Richard as a man, as a leader.
Y: When did you find out that things had taken a turn for the worse?
Andrea Phillips: Late Wednesday morning, we started getting people coming to our door. But at this point I wasn’t getting anything direct.
Y: What was your life like at this time?
Andrea Phillips: I was with my sister and our neighbor. All of a sudden there were the local TV reporters; at one point we had two cameras and five people sitting on my couch, because I have a sectional couch. We’re glued to the TV, I’m still trying to call people at the company; at one point I actually sent Rich an e-mail, hoping to get something back, hoping maybe he could still get to a computer. He’d [sent] me an e-mail a few days earlier: “The pirates are getting restless.” I was just hopeful, wishful thinking [that] this is not going to happen to us. Little did I know.
Y: Tell me about the moon connection between you and Richard.
Andrea Phillips: This goes back to our dating. He’d always send me at least a postcard from someplace, somewhere in the world where he’d been traveling. And he sent me one postcard that said, “I’ll see you in the moon.” And it became this little thing, because no matter where he was in the world, we’d still sit under one moon. And as our kids, Danny and Mariah, were young, I always wanted to keep Richard very much in their lives, because at 2 or 3 years old, out of sight, out of mind. We had pictures of Richard on the refrigerator, pictures of Dad’s ship, and we’d always say good night to “Daddy’s moon,” because I’d always say, “Daddy’s looking up and looking at you off the moon.” So that really just became a symbolic thing in our family when he was away.
And the fact that all this happened under a full moon was just like wow. I’d go to bed every night, and the moon was just outside our bedroom window, so just before I pulled the shade, I could see that moon, and I sent my thoughts to Richard via the moon. I guess deep down inside, I was hoping he was thinking the same thing: “We’re both under the same moon. We’re in this together.”
I do believe that there is a connection, there is a power up there. Because at one point for me in this whole event, I had a desperate moment when I needed to do something for Richard, and I thought if I could just get all this powerful energy and good wishes and all this positive energy to him, it would help.
Y: What did you do?
Andrea Phillips: [Easter] Sunday morning I was lying in bed, and I was just thinking to myself, “God, Richard must really be exhausted; we’re going into our fifth day. I can only imagine how he felt. I thought, “I just have to do something for him.” What could I do from 7500 miles away? From the other side of the world, what could I do? That’s when I had this idea. We have a little saying that has sustained us during moments of family crisis, through fun times, and not-so-fun times. You would chant, “God is good”; then someone would reply, “All the time, all the time.” Then the other person would repeat, “God is good.” We picked it up at a Mass many years ago, and we just sort of hung onto it for ourselves.
So I thought, “If only I’d thought about this the day before,” because I had the bishop of Vermont calling me, and the local churches calling, all asking what they could do. I could have had the whole state of Vermont saying, “God is good” and have everyone reply, “All the time, all the time.” I thought that could just be the power I could give Richard. Something to hang onto. So after I thought, “Why didn’t I think of that before?” I finally got up and asked Alison to try and reach at least the local priest.
Andrea Phillips: She was the woman sent from Maersk [the shipping company]. And she jumped out of bed. She drove to Morrisville and she got through to the priest and they did it.
Y: Somebody called you so you could hear it?
Andrea Phillips: Alison stayed for the Mass, and she called Jonathan, who is also a representative, and he got on his phone said, “Here, you have to listen to this.” And we were sitting around the kitchen table listening, and as I was listening, it started to snow. Now, snow is a good thing for us up here in Vermont. To me it was a sign. I know it’s kind of an unbelievable thing to believe, but to all of us in that house we knew it–hearing that, the snow. It was our little miracle. We knew it was going to be okay, and a couple of hours later we got word.
Y: Tell me about when you got the official word that Richard had been rescued.
Andrea Phillips: I had a houseful. I had my sister and two good friends. They were my pillars; they just flanked me on both sides and took control over what I could no longer control. Amber would be the one person who in [the] early morning I would confide in. I’d say, “Amber, what if this doesn’t work out?” She had my weakest moments.
So people are coming and going all the time on Sunday. Richard’s mother had arrived. She’s a very strong, religious woman, a firm believer, and she flew up from Florida; she needed to be here. She showed up Easter Sunday morning. I’m just drained. I’m going to go up [to] my room, which is kind of my safe haven. I just want to lie down for a while. This is close to noon. Even though I’m not supposed to turn on the TV, because we made the rule: no TV, because the constant 24/7, it could drive you crazy. I turned on the television just to see a movie and figured I’d fall asleep in a few moments. And as I did that, there’s a little ticker on the bottom: “Captain Phillips rescued…”
I don’t think I stopped on a step. I flew down the stairs and said to Jonathan, “Find out if this is true.” And he called his contacts; the company was all celebrating, and they kind of forgot to call me. They were waiting for the official word. I still don’t know how it came down from out there in the ocean to here at stateside, but there were tons of phone calls from that point. [Vermont senator] Patrick Leahy called me to tell me they were dancing in the parking lot.
My first phone call–because my girlfriends are holding onto the phone–my friend Paige says, “Who is this?” And I hear her scream: “Richard is on the phone!” It was just the moment of hearing his voice.
Y: What did he say to you?
Andrea Phillips: First he said to me, “Is your husband home?” [laughs] I said, “No.” Then he said, “I’ll come right over.” It was just a little thing Richard and I always had; he’d call me at any hour, day or night, and in that little baritone voice of his, he’d say, “Is your husband home?” I teared up. I’m tearing up even now, remembering.
Y: From that moment to when he came home, he had no idea about the media response to this. Was there any way for you to prepare him?
Andrea Phillips: I said, “Richard, you have no idea what’s going on on this side of the world; it’s absolutely crazy.” I told him about people camped out in the yard with satellites.
Y: Why do you think the nation got so caught up?
Andrea Phillips: Well, it was everywhere in the news. You couldn’t help but hear about it. And the 24/7 news is usually something bad, you know, like the Tiger Woods thing, not usually a nice outcome, or as spiriting as this was. People will say, and even Richard has a hard time with the hero thing. I say, “You could have let them take control of the ship, you could have told them where the men were; you took a chance, having this play out differently, you did the right thing, Richard.” I said, “You did the right thing; you protected your ship, you protected your crew, you protected your cargo… You knew the odds were better if it was just you against them, and that’s a heroic moment.
So I can see why the public felt the same way; you don’t get everyday heroes. You don’t hear a lot about the everyday heroes. Look at the policemen and the firemen who put their lives on the line, and you don’t hear about them. And it went on for five days, and it was Easter, a religious holiday for so many in the world. It wasn’t just here in the United States. It was worldwide.
Y: When did you know you had your husband back, not the world hero back?
Andrea Phillips: From the moment he got off that plane. I always had my husband, because in our house we are who we are. Even outside this house, we are who we are. I don’t want to say I wish it had never happened, but I’d be fine if it hadn’t. This has given us unbelievable opportunities to meet some unbelievable people [whom] we would never otherwise have [had] the opportunity to meet, and that’s the best part that came out of this: some of our U.S. military people; I had dinner with Madeleine Albright, who is kind of an amazing woman to me. And everyday people like us went to the Washington Opera. We toured the Queen Mary. I was never so impressed as I was meeting some of the military wives. I had a husband who had a job, went to work, who after three or four months came home, and until this pirate thing I never thought he had a dangerous job. But you take these young military wives, and they kiss their husbands goodbye not really knowing again if it’s going to be two or three months or 18 months, and are they going to make it home. I was more touched by them than I thought I should be touching their lives.
Y: When did life become more normal?
Andrea Phillips: It took a while. We were so bombarded. People wanted us to get on TV. Larry King called us personally, and Jay Leno called us personally, wanting Richard to tell his story. It took pretty much until the end of May, when it started to die down a little bit. We joked and said, “Thank God for swine flu,” because that became the next media sensation.
Y: Did you have a refuge?
Andrea Phillips: I think we did. We’d go out on the lake with a boat or just being with our close friends. People said, “We didn’t want to call you, didn’t want to bother you.” We said, “Are you kidding? Your calling us is our normal, asking us to come over for a beer.” Even our closest friends felt they wanted to give us time, but they were part of our real life. That’s my norm. That’s part of my everyday life.
Y: Richard has said that in his life he always had this pattern: home for certain months, then away. Now he faces a mysterious future. How does that affect you?
Andrea Phillips: I’m not sure yet. Ask me if he never goes back. Rich and I get along really well. We had the routine where I wouldn’t see him for a while, and that kept everything new and fresh. Even my friends would joke: “Get my husband a job where he could go away.”
We’re in a different phase right now, the kids are away in college, and now it’s back to where it started, just the two of us. But I still do what I always do: I get up and go to work. My everyday routines are still my everyday routines. It’s different at this point having him home. He’s actually busier with planning events, which is odd for us, because Rich would come home and never have to do anything except fix the door handle or cut the lawn. We’re not used to having Richard sit in front of the computer or on the phone. I’m not sure how it will affect us; I’m hoping that it doesn’t. I don’t think it will. Through all of this, I’m proud that we’ve maintained who we are. We haven’t lost that.
Y: That’s hard to do.
Andrea Phillips: He’s a very grounded man, and he grounds me, and it grounds our kids. We’ve just stayed focused on who we are and who we’ve always been, and I don’t want that to change, except [that] some of the opportunities to go places and meet people has been sort of wow! I sat in the Oval Office, I sat on the couch, and I couldn’t help but think of all the amazing people who have passed through these doors, and I’m one of them. Not that I’m amazing–but how did I get here? Why am I sitting here? That was an absolute wow.
To read more about Andrea Phillips, her husband, and her husband’s ordeal, check out our story from March, 2010 – Captain Richard Phillips and The Pirates.