Held Colombian Hostage: 'When Am I Going to Die Here?'

Columbia Hostages

On a cloudless morning on Feb. 13, 2003, a small, single engine plane flew 12,000 feet above the vast Colombian rainforest when disaster struck. The engine lost power and the plane quickly lost altitude, plummeting toward the steep mountains and the dense jungle below.

Inside the doomed plane were intelligence analysts Marc Gonsalves, 30, and Keith Stansell, a 38-year-old ex-Marine. Also on board was 49-year-old Thomas Howes, a career pilot on one of the last flights of his tour. All were private contractors hired by the U.S. Department of Defense to help fight the Colombian drug war.

"I didn't think we'd ever live through it," Stansell told "20/20" co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas. "We were just basically saying goodbye on the way down."

The jungle they were careening toward was both beautiful and deadly. Hidden in the deep foliage was an army of vicious terrorists called the FARC -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. In their 45-year battle with the Colombian government, one of their favorite tools of terror was kidnapping people to either kill them or hold them hostage. From the ground, the terrorists watched as the plane dropped out of the sky and crashed in a small clearing.

"It was a hard hit," said Gonsalves. "And then it was like a short bounce and it hit again. And on the second impact the right side of the fuselage of the airplane just ripped open."

"It was like being inside a sardine can that opens up," said Stansell. "I mean, it was pretty nasty."

Colombian Hostages: 'How Much Pain Can You Put Up With?'

Against all odds and despite serious injuries, everyone in the Cessna survived the crash. Stansell said he knew they were in FARC territory, but "we didn't understand that we had crashed in the middle of a few hundred FARC."

As the men struggled to free themselves from the wreckage, dazed and in shock from the crash, dozens of armed terrorists emerged from the jungle and surrounded them. Stansell, Gonsalves and Howes would be held hostage for more than five years in hellish rebel camps.

"It was like a challenge," Howes said. "How much pain can you put up with? How much exhaustion can you put up with?

"I was probably the one that had the least hope at times of the three of us and I was to the point where I would have been -- preferred to have a -- to be shot," he said. "Let's end this now."

Within seconds of their capture, the three survivors were herded at gunpoint into the jungle, out of sight of rescuers responding to a mayday call placed by Stansell during the crash.

"We had aircraft overhead and a rescue mission overhead in something like 15 minutes," said William Brownfield, current U.S. ambassador to Colombia. "So, the initial reaction was considerable frustration, that we got there so fast and we could not get them out."

The three captives were forced to begin a journey deep into the jungle, marching up to 22 hours a day for more than three weeks.

"It was a death march," said Stansell. "I had something wrong, maybe some internal injuries in my stomach and I couldn't eat. I went for a week without eating."

After almost a month on the march, the new hostages reached the first of many jungle camps where they'd be kept. They were put in cages, and forbidden to speak to each other. By that point they had discovered that their captors were both young and frighteningly naïve.

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