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At the last family reunion in July 2007, Bill Coggio from River Falls shares a lighter moment with his brother-in-law, Richard Phillips.

Captain's rescue from pirates by Navy SEALs cause for celebration

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Captain's rescue from pirates by Navy SEALs cause for celebration
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

They were scared and worried, but the Bill Coggio family found moments of humor to relieve the tension.

When Bill's 7th grade daughter at Meyer Middle School, Dana, didn't have her language arts assignment done last Wednesday night, Bill suggested: "Tell your teacher that your uncle's been captured by pirates."

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Father and daughter laughed but agreed the alibi probably wouldn't fly with Mrs. Schertz.

However, that was before the news got so big it was splashed around the world: Dana's uncle and Bill's brother-in-law, Captain Richard Phillips, of Underhill, Vt., was being held hostage for ransom by Somali pirates floating aboard an enclosed lifeboat in the Indian Ocean.

The standoff dragged on for days before ending Sunday with Phillips' rescue by Navy SEALs and the shooting death of three of the four pirates.

And how did the Coggio family first learn of the daring rescue? By TV? Internet? Phone call?

No, their daughter Tessa, a River Falls High School sophomore, got a text message from a friend.

The Coggios had just returned from church. They were planning to visit acquaintances in Minnesota.

"We were all kind of down," Bill said. "We had reached a low point earlier after Richard's attempted escape where he jumped out, been shot at by the pirates and then recaptured. Then it looked even worse when the pirates threw out the radio and contact came to an end.

"So there didn't seem to be any more developments Sunday just before noon. We were ready to leave the house, silently and with not much enthusiasm, when my daughter gets a text message that Richard's been freed. Text messaging -- Talk about your microcosm for 21st century communication.

"I immediately checked the Internet, there was still nothing, so we turned on the TV to CNN and there it was flashing across the bottom of the screen that he was freed.

"I can tell you, we had a big-time celebration. There was a huge emotional release -- jumping up and down, hugging and crying. We just felt total elation."

The Coggios have lived in the town of Troy since 2001. Bill's older sister, Andrea, is the wife of Richard Phillips.

Bill Coggio, 45, is a 3M research scientist. His wife, Grace, is an adjunct faculty member in communication studies and theatre arts at UW-River Falls.

The couple have three kids. The third, Ellen, is a fourth grader at Westside.

Bill has six brother and sisters, including Andrea. All live in Vermont and New York. During the crisis they rallied around Andrea at her Vermont home.

"Living where I do, I'm the oddball in our family," Bill said last week for an online Journal story as the crisis unfolded. "We're more isolated from all the media attention that's going on out there.

"But we're in contact with them by phone and thinking of them all the time. Distance may separate us, but family ties do not."

Bill said his brother-in-law, who captained the hijacked the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, was very aware of the growing piracy threat in that region.

"They had stepped-up training to prepare," Bill said.

Ironically, besides his pirate-captured brother-in-law, Bill has two brothers employed in the Merchant Marine for private shipping firms. One brother is an engineer, the other is a purser (overseeing food supplies).

And Bill has a sister who operates a ferry boat for passengers and their cars in Lake Champlain between New York and Vermont. She's licensed as a captain by the Coast Guard.

When it hits home and affects your family, Bill said watching tragedies on the news is totally transformed.

"It's crazy, unreal, more intense," he said.

While the hostage standoff lasted for days, Bill said the family was reassured by the Navy's hostage recovery team that "...time was on their side."

"The longer it goes, the more the hope is that they (hostage takers) will be worn down," Bill said. "They were trapped out there in rough ocean waters and (Richard) was their only hostage, their only bargaining chip."

Bill said that going into Easter weekend, there was little joy in his family.

"We tried to say busy but it wasn't that productive," he said. "Grace was correcting papers and getting ready for a lecture. I was raking leaves and collecting brush. The kids had practices to attend for play, dance and for volleyball.

"What was going on with Richard and my sister never really left my mind. I was going at half pace, looking at my watch, adding eight hours to where Richard was and wondering how he was doing. We rented a movie Saturday night, but then turned on the TV news right away when it was done."

Bill said his Vermont siblings got "phenomenal support" from the community, the country and the world. Government and military officials, U.S. senators, including Ted Kennedy, called to wish the best and offer the latest on the hostage negotiations.

An unknown person set up a Facebook website for Richard Phillips. Soon, many hundreds of supportive messages were posted.

Locally, Bill said his family got the same kind of helpful support from friends and neighbors, and especially from their pastor at Hope Lutheran Church, Jean Gfall.

With deadly drama over, Bill said daily routines no longer seem trivial or annoying.

"We're all greatly relieved that we can now worry once again about the little things," he said. "It's nice to have routines. They're not really such a bother after all."

Bill said he's talked with his sister Andrea, who said her husband's rescue and safe return made for "the best Easter ever."

The Coggio family, from town of Troy and Vermont, may soon have another reason to toast.

While they gather every so often for large family reunions, Bill's mother has her 80th birthday this summer.

That alone would make for a delightful gathering -- one where there will likely be no shortage of stories to share.

Bill said that with his two seafaring brothers, reunions are often buzzing with sailing lore.

"But listening to what Richard must have experienced, I don't know how you can top that one," he said. "And actually, I don't even want to go there and try to imagine."

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