UNDERHILL, Vt. (AP) – Richard Phillips’ crew missed out on a reunion with him. His hometown won’t.

Balloons, “Welcome Home” signs and spirits were up as the small Vermont town where the freed sea captain lives gears up to welcome the “biggest celebrity in Underhill.”

Phillips was scheduled to return Friday afternoon on a chartered flight arriving at Burlington International Airport. After a private reunion with family members, he was to make a brief statement before being taken to his home in Underhill, about 18 miles away, said Kevin Speers, a spokesman for Maersk shipping lines, based in Norfolk, Va.

“He’s our hero,” said resident David Villeneuve, who put up signs in his yard to welcome Phillips. “He’s the best thing to happen to the U.S. in a while.”

Phillips, 53, who was rescued from Somali pirates in a daring Navy SEAL sniper operation on Easter Sunday, was unable to join the crew of the Maersk Alabama when it was greeted early Thursday by a cheering crowd at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

There were hugs, tears and a massive sense of relief when the crew arrived. One crewman, carrying a child toward the terminal, shouted, “I’m happy to see my family!”

Another exclaimed, “God bless America.”

Phillips, who was rescued by the U.S. Navy’s USS Bainbridge, couldn’t make that reunion because the destroyer diverted Tuesday to chase pirates attacking a second U.S. cargo ship. That ship escaped.

His first port of call was Mombasa, Kenya, where the USS Bainbridge docked to the strains of “Sweet Home Alabama” – the Lynyrd Skynyrd hit. Next stop: Underhill, a rural community at the foot of Mount Mansfield.

There was no immediate plan for a parade or public celebration.

“We’re respecting the family’s wishes and waiting to see what they’d like to do,” said Kari Papelbon, the town’s zoning administrator.

But many were giddy with anticipation.

At Poker Hill Arts, an after-school art program for elementary school students, owner Chris Gluck and her charges put the finishing touches on a banner Thursday before fastening it to the wooden porch of the Underhill Country Store.

The 18-foot-long banner, made of tar paper, added “Captain Phillips” beneath one erected Monday that said “Welcome Home.” Both left plenty of room inside the white block letters for people to write their greetings with pens tied to them.

“Welcome Home Capt. Phillips (Biggest Celebrity in Underhill),” read one scribbled note.

“Richard, glad you came out of this safe you are a good man with high standards. More Americans should be like you,” said another.

“It’s just really exciting that he’s coming home,” said Nate King, 10, pointing to an inscription by his family. “He’s going to be very surprised when he sees it.”

For many Underhill residents, the only dilemma was how to balance their excitement with the Phillips family’s need for privacy.

“Even if the family says they don’t want something, there will be people who feel a need to express their joy,” said Town Constable Jennifer Silpe. “It isn’t because anyone wants to interfere with their privacy or be disrespectful, it’s just that they feel compelled to express their excitement that he’s home.”

Even Phillips’ home – a modest white farmhouse with black shutters and a long white picket fence – was showing its colors.

Besides the yellow ribbons that neighbors and friends fastened to the fence while he was being held, three yellow-and-greeen helium balloons reading “Welcome Home” flapped in a stiff breeze Thursday at the house.

One of the first things on tap for Maersk Alabama crew member William Rios, who’s back home in New York City, will be to speak at Sunday services at Harlem’s Second St. John Baptist Church, his pastor said.

The Rev. Robert Jones said Friday that he has spoken to Rios, who has agreed to speak there this weekend. Jones notes that a different ending to the hostage situation could have resulted in a funeral at his church.

Instead, there are now yellow ribbons outside the building. The church also will add decorations and a welcome sign.

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