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Ship's Commander Recounts Dramatic Rescue

Frank Castellano, commanding officer of the USS Bainbridge, says that one pirate's cooperation was an important step in a U.S. crew's dramatic rescue Sunday of Capt. Richard Phillips.

Three of the four Somali pirates holding Phillips aboard the lifeboat of his ship, the Maersk Alabama, were killed by snipers during the rescue operation. The fourth came aboard the USS Bainbridge earlier Sunday after U.S. forces made a supply run of food, water and clothes for Phillips, Castellano tells NPR's Renee Montagne.

The pirate "wanted to come back to the ship and talk about how we could get Capt. Phillips back," Castellano says. "It was all part of the hostage negotiations that occurred over the course of the event."

When asked whether the pirate had come to the USS Bainbridge to give himself up, Castellano says, "You know, I don't know really what went through his mind ... but he came, and that was a step in the direction to allow Capt. Richard Phillips to get home, and that was very important."

The mood of the captors fluctuated during the negotiations, Castellano says.

"It depended on the situation. Sometimes they were calm, and there was progress being made," Castellano says. "Other times, they were angry and seemed to be vengeful. They had their ups and downs, but when all is said and done, they are criminals."

The turning point in the mission came when it appeared that the captain's life was in imminent danger.

"[We] ultimately believed the pirates were about to kill the captain. That's what was the decision point," Castellano says.

Phillips' hands were bound and, just before his rescue, an AK-47 was seen pointed at the captain.

The moment of rescue "was joyous," Castellano says. "I can tell you there was almost a shout that went throughout the ship when we found out that we had success and that we had rescued Capt. Richard Phillips."

The USS Bainbridge is named for Commodore William Bainbridge, who fought against the Barbary pirates in the early 19th century. Castellano says the ship's history was a point of discussion throughout the event.

"His ship, now today, 206 years later, was fighting pirates over in the Indian Ocean. I could not imagine a U.S. naval vessel more fitting than Bainbridge to have participated in this mission," Castellano says.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Richard Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama, who was held by Somali pirates for five days, is headed home to Vermont. He still hasn't spoken publicly about his ordeal. We're going to hear now from the man responsible for that rescue, Commander Frank Castellano, the commanding officer of the USS Bainbridge. He is the one who decided on Sunday that Phillips was in imminent danger, and gave the order to snipers from the Navy SEALs to fire - exactly three shots, killing the three pirates and freeing Phillips.

Speaking to us from his ship in the Indian Ocean and operating on very little sleep, Commander Castellano recounted his dealings with the pirates, which at one point were calm enough that they accepted a change of clothes for their American hostage.

Commander FRANK CASTELLANO (USS Bainbridge): We actually had sent over batteries for their radios so that we were able to communicate with them. And then the package of food, water, and change of clothes for Captain Phillips actually occurred on Easter Sunday morning. In the evening, he was rescued, but that morning was when we were able to get the material over to him, and that was a big, a big step.

MONTAGNE: And was that the moment in which there was a fourth pirate who left the hostage situation, who left the life boat and came back to your ship? Did he give himself up?

Commander CASTELLANO: We sent the boat over there to bring the food and water and clothes for Captain Phillips, and he wanted to come back to the ship and talk about how we could get Captain Phillips back. So you know, it was all part of the hostage negotiations that occurred over the course of the event.

MONTAGNE: When you were actually negotiating with the pirates, what were they like to deal with?

Commander CASTELLANO: It depended on the situation. Sometimes they were calm, and there was progress being made, and other times they were angry and seemed to be vengeful. They had their ups and downs. But when all is said and done, they are criminals.

MONTAGNE: In those last moments, what was the vision that you all had of this boat with Captain Phillips on it, and these pirates?

Commander CASTELLANO: You know, the vision in those last moments was that the weather had been getting - worsening conditions, and tensions were rising, and there was a tracer round that was fired from the life boat. You know, that caused a lot of concern; you know, it's basically - ultimately believed that the pirates were about to kill the captain, and that's what was the decision point.

MONTAGNE: It's been reported that what was happening on the boat then was that the captain was there, standing next to a pirate who was pointing an AK-47 at him.

Commander CASTELLANO: Yes, I would say that was an accurate statement.

MONTAGNE: So, pretty serious situation. But it must have also - how can I say this? Giving the order to shoot when Captain Phillips was standing right there - these people were very close together - did you hold your breath?

Commander CASTELLANO: I'd really not like to go into that. But I can just tell you that our special operations forces are very highly trained, and that training certainly proved to be invaluable that night.

MONTAGNE: When you literally rescued him, he was bound, right?

Commander CASTELLANO: His hands had been bound, and it was just, you know, it was joyous. I can tell you there was almost a shout that went throughout the ship when we found out that, you know, we had success and that we had rescued Captain Richard Phillips. And we brought him on board the ship, and he got to step onto sovereign U.S. soil. And it was a joyous moment for everyone who was involved.

MONTAGNE: During all those days, did you ever consider who the Bainbridge was named after?

Commander CASTELLANO: Yes, I did. And actually, that been a discussion point throughout the event, that, you know, my ship's namesake, Commodore William Bainbridge, who had fought against the Barbary pirates over 200 years ago, his ship was fighting pirates over in the Indian Ocean. And I could not imagine a U.S. naval vessel more fitting than Bainbridge to have participated in this mission.

MONTAGNE: Commander Castellano, thank you for talking with us.

Commander CASTELLANO: It's been my pleasure to talk with you, and can't say enough about my crew and those of all the ships involved in the mission. It was great. They stood their watches around the clock, with a new sense of purpose, ensuring Captain Phillips's safety.

MONTAGNE: Frank Castellano is commanding officer of the USS Bainbridge, and spoke to us from the ship. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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