Stansell convinced the other hostages to board the chopper, and as it took off, the fake aid workers overpowered the two FARC terrorists on board and revealed their true identities. Shouts and tears of joy erupted from within the chopper.
"The idea of being free was a fantasy," said Gonsalves. "It was just an overwhelming emotion, and for me, disbelief, because it seemed like it was too good to be true."
The American hostages were put on a separate plane and quietly flown out of the country, to an Army base in Texas where they were reunited with their families.
"It was like he floated in on a cloud and all of a sudden, here's Dad," said Stansell's daughter Lauren.
"That's exactly what it was like," said his son Kyle, now 16.
Stansell met separately with Medina and his twin sons, who were then 5 years old.
"These are good tears," he said, recalling the moment when he met the twins for the first time. "They just looked up at me and they started screaming, Dad, and they'd never seen me and that's a tribute to their mother who raised them saying, 'this is your father and he'll be home.'"
The expanded Stansell family now lives together in Florida. Howes is also restarting his life in Florida, and reconnecting with his son Tommy Jr., whom he last saw as a 5-year-old boy.
"A human being is capable of a lot more than one thinks," Howes said. "I'd like to pass that on to Tommy, that to, you know, persevere, endure, and it'll pay off."
Howes' marriage did not survive his ordeal, nor did Gonsalves', who now lives in Connecticut with his father.
When asked what it was like to be gone for five-and-a-half years and to re-emerge, Howes said, "We're three Rip Van Winkles."
"You know, when we crashed, iPods didn't exist," Stansell said.
The three men share their experience in a new book they've written together, called "Out of Captivity." But for Stansell, there was another chapter still to be completed. ABC News followed him as he returned to Colombia last week, travelling with tight security.
"I feel great coming back to Colombia," he said. "I love Colombia. This is, in one way, closing the loop for me."
Stansell thanked Santos and the team at the U.S. embassy.
"I just wanted to come and physically look at you guys, and shake your hands and say thank you," he said. He also stopped by his favorite radio program to send a message to the hostages still in captivity in the jungle.
"It's worth it to keep fighting to the end to get out," he said in his message.
Today, the FARC is believed to hold 700 hostages, most of them Colombian citizens.
"You know, there's going to be good days and bad days, but I appreciate 'em all," he said. "I'm free and I'm alive. That's all I need. I don't need anything else."