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Bellport native a player in pirate drama

Growing up in Bellport, Frank X. Castellano III heard his father's stories about serving in the U.S. Army during World War II and the Korean War. He also watched his father serve as a Suffolk police officer.

PHOTOS: Pirate standoff

As he rose in his career in the U.S. Navy, Castellano said he was shaped by the influence of police officers and military veterans who were among his father's friends and colleagues. He credits his father, who is now retired, for giving him the determination to see a mission through.

On Sunday, in the darkened waters of the Indian Ocean, Castellano, the commander of the Navy destroyer USS Bainbridge, stepped into history when Navy SEALs on his ship shot and killed pirates holding an American cargo ship's captain hostage, and then rescued the captain, who was alive and well.

In a phone interview with Newsday aboard the Bainbridge, Castellano said he waited with "tactical patience" for the moment to pounce during a five-day game of cat-and-mouse with the Somali pirates who held Capt. Richard Phillips on a small lifeboat.

He said the decision to shoot the pirates was made all the more urgent because the Somalis were showing signs of increasing agitation as the standoff wore on. And, earlier, he said he watched helplessly as Phillips jumped off the raft and tried to swim to safety - only to be pulled back by the pirates.

Then Sunday, as tensions mounted, the pirates showed themselves on the lifeboat. One was seen holding an AK-47 assault rifle to Phillips' back. From where he watched, Castellano said, "we believed they were about to kill the captain.

"The thing that was most concerning to us was they were unpredictable," he said. "They would swing from one extreme to the other."

Earlier, it has been reported, Castellano was given the authority from President Barack Obama through the chain of command to do what was necessary to save Phillips' life.

A 1990 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Castellano found himself with an enormous decision on his hands. He recalled his father's lessons about seeing a mission through.

On Sunday, after darkness had fallen, Castellano said it was difficult to see what was taking place aboard the lifeboat, which was being towed by the Bainbridge. More troubling, a stiff breeze had kicked both vessels into motion, further complicating the task for Navy SEAL snipers who would either make three kills with three bullets or, if they failed, risk seeing the captain killed in retaliation.

But Castellano, 40, who said he got a combined 12 hours of sleep during the five-day ordeal, said the deteriorating situation made him believe he could wait no longer. "The decision had to be made because Captain Phillips' life was in danger," he said.

After the successful rescue of Phillips, Castellano said, relief swept through the Bainbridge. "It was jubilant," he said. "Basically, a cry went through the ship, of joy that Captain Phillips had been rescued."

Castellano, who lives in Virginia Beach, Va., has deep ties to Long Island. His great uncle, the Rev. Rafael Monteleone, was the founding pastor of Our Lady of Carmel Roman Catholic Church when the church moved to its present location in Patchogue.

His mother was a church secretary there. His parents helped run bingo games to raise funds. As a child, Castellano served in the church as an altar boy.

"Church, family and hometown were very important to me growing up," he said.

Four years ago, the church hosted the funeral for Navy SEAL Lt. Michael P. Murphy of Patchogue, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for heroic action in Afghanistan, where he was killed in a firefight.

Monday, Castellano's parents in Bellport and their neighbors expressed both pride and relief. "It worked out the way it was supposed to," said Castellano's father, Frank, who said he last spoke with his son about a week ago. "They did their job and they did it well."

One neighbor, Don Stonebridge, said he spoke with Castellano's father in the parking lot of a local grocery store on Sunday afternoon, before the daring rescue took place.

"He was excited that his son was captain of the Bainbridge," Stonebridge said. "But he didn't know what the result would be."

PHOTOS: Pirate standoff

Staff writer Jennifer Sinco Kelleher contributed to this story.

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