An American ship captain was in "imminent danger" when U.S. forces shot and killed three armed pirates holding him hostage on a lifeboat in the Indian Ocean, a naval official said.
"If he was not in imminent danger, they were not to take this sort of action," said Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. "He had a weapon aimed at him, and the on-scene commander saw that the weapon was aimed at him."
As one of the four pirates who had been holding Capt. Richard Phillips, 53, negotiated onboard the USS Bainbridge, special forces on the same U.S. ship saw Phillips move to the side of the lifeboat to relieve himself, a senior U.S. official told George Stephanopoulos, ABC News' chief Washington correspondent.
At that point, forces saw their opportunity and killed the other three pirates on the lifeboat, the source told Stephanopoulos.
The special forces were on the scene and authorized to take action "in extremis" as a result of President Obama's approval of a recommendation from his top military advisers Friday, Stephanopoulos reported.
At the time of the shooting, the snipers had a clear line of sight on all three pirates, and so they took simultaneous shots that hit all three, another U.S. official said.
The senior official told Stephanopoulos that the rescue was "going to make a great movie."
'Capt. Richard Phillips Is Safe and Sound'
Phillips, held hostage on the lifeboat since Wednesday, was "safe and sound" and doing well, said John Reinhart, president and chief executive officer of Maersk Line Ltd.
Phillips was taken to the nearby guided missile destroyer USS Bainbridge after his rescue, a naval statement said, and was later flown to the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer, where he was able to call his family.
"He's feeling quite good. He's getting some rest and he'll soon be home," Reinhart said. "[Phillips' wife] sends her thanks to the nation, and to all of you for your prayers and your support. She is ecstatic to know that very soon she'll be reunited with her husband."
Onboard Phillips' ship, the Maersk Alabama, now docked in a Kenyan port and being examined as a "crime scene" by the FBI, Phillips' crew cheered, waved American flags and shot off makeshift fireworks.
Crew members have hailed Phillips for giving himself up to the pirates Wednesday to save their lives, and Gortney agreed.
"The actions of Capt. Phillips and the civilian mariners of Maersk Alabama were heroic," Gortney said in a written statement. "They fought back to regain control of their ship, and Capt. Phillips selflessly put his life in the hands of these armed criminals in order to protect his crew."
But Phillips has called his Navy rescuers "the real heroes," Reinhart said.
President Obama phoned Phillips on the USS Boxer and also called Phillips' wife, Andrea Phillips, and family at their home.
In a prepared statement, he hailed the heroism of the military and Phillips.
"I share the country's admiration for the bravery of Capt. Phillips and his selfless concern for his crew," Obama said. "His courage is a model for all Americans."
Andrea Phillips, via a message read by Gortney, suggested she could not wait for her husband's return.
"Your family loves you," Phillips' wife said in the message. "Your family is praying for you. Your family saving a chocolate Easter egg for you, unless your son eats it first."
Capt. Joseph Murphy, whose son, Shane, was aboard the Maersk-Alabama when it repulsed the initial pirate attacks, offered "warm regards" for Phillips' family.
"Our prayers have been answered on this Easter Sunday," Murphy said in a written statement. "I have made it clear throughout this terrible ordeal that my son and our family will forever be indebted to Capt. Phillips for his bravery. If not, for his incredible personal sacrifice ... this kidnapping and act of terror could have turned out much worse."
Adm. Rick Gurnon, president of the Massachusetts Marine Academy, suggested he'd been confident Phillips would survive.
"I was sure that Capt. Phillips was going to be returned because the pirates had no cards to play," Gurnon said.
"It doesn't get better than this," Gurnon added. "This is exactly the way we wanted it to end with the crew safe, with the cargo safe and with the ship safe."
Navy to Pirates: You're Out of Options
According to Gortney, U.S. forces had "seconds" to decide whether to shoot after it appeared that the pirates were getting ready to shoot Capt. Phillips at 7:19 p.m. local time, or 12:19 p.m. ET.
Sea conditions were "deteriorating" and the USS Bainbridge was towing the lifeboat towards better waters. The tether was 25 to 30 meters at the time of the incident.
For days, the Navy had been sending a small rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RIB) to the lifeboat to provide Phillips and the pirates with food, water, medicine if they needed it, and changes of clothing for Phillips. Gortney said this was all an effort to build confidence.
When a RIB went by today one pirate got in and was transported back to the Bainbridge.
That pirate was engaged in negotiations aboard the Bainbridge, but Gortney said that at no time was the U.S. preparing to pay what Gortney described as a "significant" ransom demanded by the pirates. He said U.S. officials were trying to explain to the pirates that they had no good options left and to give up Phillips.
While that pirate was aboard the Bainbridge, the situation "escalated" and the commander on scene determined that Phillips' life was in imminent danger.
Gortney said that they observed the pirates aiming an AK-47 at Phillips' back and seemed to be "getting ready to use it." Phillips was tied up, and the Navy "interpreted hostile intent" and decided to take action.
Gortney confirmed that there was a standing order from President Obama to take action if the commander on site determined it was possible.
At one point, the pirates "exposed" their heads and shoulders, and snipers perched atop the "fantail" of the Bainbridge, or the back end of the ship facing the lifeboat that was being towed, took the shots and killed all three pirates on the lifeboat.
Navy SEALs were there as part of the special ops teams, Gortney said, but he wouldn't or couldn't say if they were the ones to take the shots.
Phillips was transferred from the lifeboat to a RIB, then to the Bainbridge, and finally to the Boxer. Gortney said he is in "good health" and actually declined food when asked. He wouldn't say where he would be transferred to.
The captured pirate is on board the Boxer after being transferred from the Bainbridge. Gortney said he's cooperating and being treated humanely.
The Department of Justice is deciding what to do with the captive pirate -- whether to send him to Kenya for prosecution as other pirates have been, or whether to try him in the United States because he was pirating a U.S. vessel.
Political Hot Potato
Though the Pentagon directed the military response to the crisis, President Obama was personally involved.
After the rescue, Obama's statement said the battle against pirates would not end.
"We remain resolved to halt the rise of piracy in this region," Obama said. "To achieve that goal, we must continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks, be prepared to interdict acts of piracy and ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes."
On "Fox News Sunday," before it was known Phillips was safe, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said the United States must not back down to the pirates.
"You have to have a tough approach," he said, "which means you have to be strong. We're not going to give in to blackmail and we're not gonna allow them to continue to do what they're doing."
On the same show, Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., sounded a similar note.
"Once we've resolved the situation with the captain, we don't want to imperil his life, we've got to make them pay a price for this kind of activity that is larger than the ransoms they're extracting so they'll discontinue it," he said.
But the question was how to stop future attacks.
On ABC News' "This Week," Adm. Thad Allen, the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, said the answer is not arming merchant ships to defend against pirates, as some have advocated.
"I think that's pretty problematic for reasons such as training, certification, how you apply standards," he said. "The discussions I've had with the private sector and the ship companies really don't favor that right now."
Kaj Larsen, a former Navy SEAL who has made documentaries on pirates in Indonesia and arms sales in Mogadishu, told ABC News the problem of piracy will not be easily solved.
"I'm very relieved that the hostage is safe," Larsen said. "That was a happy ending to what was obviously a trying ordeal for the American crew. At the same time I'm cautiously pessimistic, because I'm keenly aware that we're going to see more and more of this problem in the future.
"I don't think in this particular case unfortunately, you're going to see a deterrent effect," he said. "The sums that these pirates are making are just extraordinary. So the incentive is too great even if they lose a few of their foot soldiers in the process."
Earlier Reports of Trouble in Negotiations
Before Phillips was rescued, his fate was far from certain. In fact, there were reports earlier in the day that negotiations for Phillips' release had broken down.
Somali elders who were negotiating for the pirates offered to forgo a ransom but insisted that the pirates not be arrested, according to people in touch with the elders. However, the U.S. negotiators would not accept those terms, the sources said.
This morning, the U.S. military said its negotiators were continuing their efforts.
Until the rescue, Phillips and his captors were in a lifeboat off the African coast after leaving the Maersk Alabama on Wednesday.
Three U.S. Navy warships were trying to prevent them from reaching the Somali coast. The USS Halyburton and USS Bainbridge were sticking with the lifeboat. A third ship, the USS Boxer, was farther away but still within helicopter range.
The mood was tense. On Saturday night, pirates fired shots after a Navy launch approached the boat and the Navy withdrew.
Also on Saturday, a U.S. official said today, the pirates shot their guns next to Phillips' head.
Officials said Saturday evening that the covered lifeboat was 20 miles from the coast, and the pirates had fuel onboard, contrary to previous reports.
If the lifeboat had gotten to shore, it would have been much more difficult for the U.S. military to follow Phillips' whereabouts.
Crewman: 'He Saved Our Lives'
On Saturday evening local time, Phillips' freighter, the Maersk Alabama, pulled into port in Mombasa, Kenya, with its crew members waving and pumping their fists.
The 17,000-ton ship, with 19 crew members onboard, was flanked by escort boats and helicopters flying overhead.
Several of the crew members said the captain had saved their lives. When asked how, one said he'd traded himself for the safety of the crew.
"He saved our lives!" second mate Ken Quinn, of Bradenton, Fla., declared after he walked off the ship, according to The Associated Press. "He's a hero!"
One crew member said his friend stabbed a pirate with his knife. As he told the story, his friend, a crew member, showed off his knife.
A crew member flashed a thumbs up sign and one said he was looking forward to having a beer. Some crew members wore bulletproof vests.
Back home in the United States, news of the Alabama's safe arrival in port sparked joy and relief.
In Buzzard's Bay, Mass., Capt. Joseph Murphy spoke to his son, Shane, by telephone.
"It's a thousand Christmas gifts," he said Saturday. "It's that connection to your child and someone that you've reared when you know they're out of harm's way. There's no expression to tell you that relief as a parent."
High-Seas Drama: The Standoff Begins
The high-seas drama settled into a standoff after the pirates boarded the container ship Maersk Alabama Wednesday while firing AK-47 assault rifles, but were forced off the ship a short time later by the unarmed American crew, which captured one of the pirates.
Phillips apparently prevented a bloody counterattack by the pirates by offering himself as a hostage. A prisoner exchange was arranged, but the pirates didn't keep their part of the bargain and refused to let the captain go free.
After the escape bid on Friday, the pirates threatened to kill Phillips if the U.S. Navy attempted to rescue him.
The Maersk Alabama was in Somali waters because it was carrying food aid to hungry people in Africa, including Somalia.
ABC News' Jim Sciutto, Martha Raddatz, John Hendren, Jake Tapper and Jason Ryan contributed to this report.