For the Howes family of Chatham, Mass., Fourth of July fireworks have never been so spectacular.
Two days after a daring helicopter rescue freed 15 hostages from Colombian rebels, Thomas "Randy" Howes, one of three American contractors held captive for more than five years, called his older brother, 58-year-old Stephen Howes, at the family's home in Chatham, an old fishing town on Cape Cod, where Randy first learned to fly.
Friday's reunion conversation, which took place as the families gathered all across the country to celebrate freedom, timed neatly with Randy Howe's 55th birthday. The military contractor, whose plane went down in the Colombian jungle in early 2003 as he scoured the countryside for cocoa fields and cocaine labs, was born on July 4.
Stephen recounted the birthday call from Randy outside the Chatham home, where their father lived before his recent death. The two also have a middle sister, Sally, who lives in Maine. The house sits directly next door to my parent's cottage, and I introduced myself as both a neighbor and a writer at ABC News.
Stephen described his conversation with Randy as brief, a bit scattered and intense. It was a call he was unsure he would ever receive.
Randy, along with fellow Americans Marc Gonsalves, 36, and Keith Stansell, 43, continues to pace through a reintegration process under the Army's watch in Texas.
Stephen does not know whether Randy plans to return to Cape Cod immediately, or if he will reunite with his wife, a Peruvian native he met in Lima, and his son, who both live in Florida and where the family lived before his life as a hostage began. Photographs released by the Army late last night show Randy sitting with his wife and son during lunch Sunday at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
During his call with Stephen, Randy handed the phone to Gonsalves and Stansell so his fellow hostages could greet his older brother who Randy had apparently built up to mythic proportions with tales of Randy's prowess as a master carpenter.
When Randy does return to Chatham, a deep family will be there to greet him. "Welcome Back to the World Randy," a handwritten poster reads in front of the weather-beaten South Chatham Village Hall at the end of his family's quiet road. The South Chatham Community Church hails the good Lord for answering the congregation's prayers and bringing Randy home.
"I almost fell off the ladder," Stephen said of the moment his daughter, Amanda, who works at a local Boston news station, called him with the report of the rescue after seeing the triumphant item cross the news wires.
Stephen said that he has followed Randy's story as closely as possible since his brother's plane went down. There would be teases from the rebels suggesting his brother and the other hostages — including former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt — were alive. Stephen admitted, however, that he had his doubts he would see Randy ever again.
Like everyone else, Stephen is eager to hear Randy's story, the details of which have yet to fully emerge. The three have only issued a joint statement in which they thank their families and the governments of the United States and Colombia for never forgetting them.
"For five and a half long years, we all hoped and prayed this day would come," the statement said. "Now that it has, we're just overwhelmed with emotion. The love and the joy we're all experiencing is beyond description."
The statement was released on the Fourth of July, the same day Stephen first spoke to his brother.
"We can't think of a better time to thank our fellow citizens for never giving up on us, for never forgetting us, for always believing that we would, one day, return home to the country we love," the statement continued.
Colombia-born Betancourt, who's a French ex-patriot, has spoken the most publicly about the conditions under the Colombian rebels and described the conditions as unfit for even a plant.
But Stephen said his first priority will be giving his brother whatever space he needs to begin the process of re-entering the civilized world, free from the chains that bound him to his life as a hostage.
Before his brother's plane crash, Randy came home from Bogota to visit their ailing father at a hospital on Cape Cod. At their father's bedside, the brothers talked about Randy's adventurous career as a pilot, which had led him to a job flying over Colombia for a subsidiary of military contractor Northrop Grumman.
Stephen said he questioned his brother's safety, and Randy acknowledged the job's dangers. But Randy saw a silver lining — if he ever did go down, he told his older brother, he would die instantly.
Five years of captivity and one dramatic rescue effort later, it's clear that Randy may have been wrong about that, a miscalculation to be thankful for.