Feb. 24, 2009 -- The publisher provided the following excerpt of "Out of Captivity: Surviving 1,967 Days in the Colombian Jungle" by Marc Gonsalves, Tom Howes and Keith Stansell with Gary Broze to ABC News.
A Place to Crash
"That, sir, is an engine failure."
From Tommy Janis's tone, you wouldn't have known that anything serious was wrong. He was our pilot on the mission, and he had flown all kinds of aircraft all around the world. Tommy J. was a real larger-than-life guy with more stories to tell than I have hairs on my head -- and I've as full and thick a mane as anybody. His response wasn't borderline sarcastic; it came from a place about as deep into irony country as we were into Colombia.
The "that" he was referring to wasn't so much a thing as it was an absence of a thing -- the steady throbbing pulse of the single 675- horsepower Pratt and Whitney turboprop engine that until a few seconds before had been powering our Cessna Grand Caravan. It didn't take someone like me, a guy who'd been in avionics and aircraft maintenance for all his adult life, to recognize that the relative silence in the cabin was not a good thing.
I closed the biography of Che Guevara I'd been reading and looked over at my buddy and coworker Marc Gonsalves. He'd been busy at his station, practicing with the camera gear and the computer. I wasn't sure if he'd been so involved in what he was doing that he noticed anything at all. The poor guy had only been flying with us for just a few missions and now we had a damn engine failure to deal with. I knew that Tommy Janis and our copilot Tom Howes would instantly flip the switch to figure out if we were going to be able to get this bird over the mountains and to the airport at Larandia, where we were scheduled to refuel.
In my twenty-plus years of flying, I'd had all kinds of training in a variety of different military and civilian aircraft. I'd been in tight spots before and now I slipped easily into a don't-panic-just-focus mindset.
"Marc," I told him, "make the mayday call." "I'm too new to make a call this important," Marc said. "I think you better do it."
I couldn't blame the guy for not wanting to make that initial call. I immediately got on the SATCOM radio to relay our location to the guys back at the base. The first thing I needed to do to was to let our command posts know our location coordinates.
"Magic Worker, this is Mutt 01, do you read me?"
I waited but got no response. I tried them again. Silence.
This was not good. Magic Worker was responsible for our command and control. Normally, they responded almost instantly every time we called in at our appointed half hour intervals. The thought of possibly going in on an emergency landing without anyone knowing we had a mayday was not something any of us wanted to do. I made another call to a Department of Defense group based in Florida called JIATF East.
"Mutt 01. This is JIATF East. How many souls on board?"
"JIATF East, there are five." I listed them and spelled each of the names: Tom Janis, Tom Howes, Marc Gonsalves, Eduardo Cruz, and myself -- Keith Stansell.
I kept calling out the coordinates to them as we descended from twelve thousand feet over the rugged Cordilleria Oriental Mountains, south of Bogotá. A few minutes later we reached Ed Trinidad, who was a part of our Tactical Analysis Team back at the embassy in Bogotá.
He was trying to stay cool and calm, but I could hear the stress in his voice.
Breaking with usual radio transmission protocol, I said, "Ed, bro, we're just looking for a place to crash. Make sure you tell all our families that we love them."
Just saying those words made it hard for me to look at Marc, so I glanced toward the cockpit, where Tommy J and Tom Howes were busy figuring out how to save our asses -- or at least keep them from being scattered over a half mile of godforsaken mountain jungle.
Once we were lined up for our landing, I looked forward and saw the two Tommys sitting there. Tommy J was spot on, man. He showed no panic, just a precision to his every move and utterance. The ground was coming at us quick. Marc and I checked our straps one more time. I took a quick look over Tom's shoulder, then linked my arm with Marc's. I'd been in communication with Ed pretty much throughout our roughly four-minute descent, and I said to him, "Hey, Ed, I'm going to have to get off. We're about to crash."
At that point, I flashed back to a conversation I'd had with one of my supervisors in the company. I'd been in the military and had had some basic survival training, but flying with Northrop Grumman, I was supposed to take the next level up. I told this company guy that I wouldn't do it. When he asked why, all I said was, "With this piece-of- s*** aircraft we've being asked to fly in, there's no way I'm going to survive a crash. A dead man doesn't need to know how to survive."
When I heard the engine spooling down, I immediately looked at the instruments and scrutinized the terrain for an emergency landing spot. I didn't see anything close to suitable, so I reached for a map. I was barely aware of the ambient noise in the cabin. I knew Keith was on the radio, but the sound of his voice in my headphones and the presence of the three men behind me were definitely on the periphery of my consciousness. Our altitude was a little over twelve thousand feet and I needed to determine if we could make the glide, clear the mountains, and land at our refueling site, Larandia.
I looked over at the gauges to find out what our current airspeed, altitude, and rate of descent were. From the map, I plotted a point approximating our location and our destination. My gut had told me instantly that we were not going to make it over the ridge and into the airport. The calculations I did simply confirmed my suspicions.
"I see a clearing." Tommy J's voice rose in pitch just a bit.
"I see it, too," I said.
We were going down in a steep valley bordered by two ridgelines. Just above the one to the north was a clearing less than the size of a football field. I'm not a spiritual or religious person, but when I calculated the odds of there being any patch of ground that was clear of trees on the thickly forested slopes of the Cordilleria Mountains, I'd say it was pretty damn close to a miracle. The spot was no bigger than a postage stamp; was tiny, but it was our only option. Put it this way: If we were falling down a deep well, that clearing was like finding a tiny ledge just a few inches above bottom.
The first thing I did was to make contact with the aviation authorities at two nearby airports, reaching the towers at Florencia and Larandia. In the middle, I remembered a brief conversation Keith and Marc had had about today being February 13. Keith had told Marc that he'd have plenty of time when we returned to order flowers for his wife,Shane. I thought of my own wife, Mariana, waiting for me back in Florida; I didn't want to think about our five-year-old son, Tommy, and what my death might do to him.
To keep my thoughts from going darker and make sure we explored every option, I asked Tommy J if we should go through a restart procedure. I'd held off raising the question until things calmed down a bit. Tommy J agreed it was worth a shot. I reset the fuel control, power and prop levers, reduced the electrics, checked the engine temperature, and then tried a restart. As the revolutions climbed I introduced fuel, but the engine stopped winding up.
Tommy J did a flawless job of bringing us down and having us just clear the tops of the trees. I was more concerned that he'd overshoot the landing area than I was that he'd come up a bit short. As we'd gotten closer to the clearing I saw that our landing strip ended at the edge of a cliff. Gliding above the ground, I yelled to Tommy J, "Plant it!"A moment later, my world went dark.
What spooked me the most was the eerie sound of the wind rushing past and through the plane's surfaces. The noise was a lot like the sound you hear when you are driving at a decent speed in your car. When you raise the windows and the glass is just about ready to make contact with the top of the frame, you hear a high-pitched whining whistle.
Keith had instructed me to secure as many of the loose things in the cabin as I could. Any small object could become a deadly projectile in a crash landing. We had a couple of bottles of water and a box of water, our cameras and lenses in hard cases, our backpacks, and some other essential gear. I secured them behind the crash barrier. When I was done, I returned to my station, and using the GPS to track our position, I radioed in our coordinates. Keith checked to make sure that I was strapped in and then he did the same for Sergeant Cruz. I was about to go through my first emergency landing, so I couldn't imagine what Cruz was thinking. I literally didn't know because he hardly spoke any English and I spoke little Spanish. From the looks we exchanged, it was clear that we both understood what was happening and that our outlook was grim.
"We are no longer maneuvering. We are searching for a flat spot to crash-land in," I radioed back to Ed Trinidad.
I could feel the plane banking, what seemed to me to be steeply, to the left. We were obviously making a turn and I felt my guts shifting a bit. I recognized that we were lining up for an approach and took a few deep breaths.
A few seconds after we came out of that first turn, the stall warning sounded. We immediately went into a right-hand turn, a less drastic maneuver, and I shut my eyes and said a quick prayer. I asked Jesus to forgive me for my sins, made a quick promise to reform, and asked that He protect my wife, my kids, and my family. My list was suddenly cut off.
"We are going in," I heard someone yell. I braced myself.
When I felt first contact, I opened my eyes. In the back of the cabin, we could see out a row of windows. I saw slashes of sunlight and dark vegetation for a few seconds, heard the scream of tearing metal, and felt a ferocious thunk followed by a second even more violent impact, which must have been the landing gear being sheared off and the fuselage raking across the rock-strewn terrain. We were sliding and everything in my vision was bouncing. I saw a slit of light pour through the front of the aircraft as the cabin was torn open like a can of tuna.
I don't know how long we slid for, but just as it happened when the engine quit, we settled into silence. I could only make out shadows and flashes for a few seconds -- the sun came streaming in, lighting up the dust that was flying everywhere. I reached for our bag of pistols and looked up to see Keith and Sergeant Cruz kicking and shouldering the door so we could get out. We all had one thing on our minds -- fire. I gathered up more of my gear and some vital paperwork, and after a few seconds with my heart in my throat, I heard the door give way. Keith was gone and Sergeant Cruz stood in the opening, glancing anxiously around.
"Bring this to Keith." I gestured toward the front of the aircraft, where I assumed Keith had gone. Cruz nodded and I was left alone in the back of the plane to gather our other weapons, my survival vest, and my personal backpack with my expense report in it. I wanted to be certain that it got filed.
I worked my way up the pitted hill toward the front of the aircraft. I was surprised to see a cow staring at me. I looked for the pistol bag so that I could arm myself. I didn't see it, and hustled back down the slope to the aircraft, assuming that Cruz hadn't understood me and left it behind.
Glancing into the cockpit from the outside, I saw Tom slumped over in the copilot's seat, his head twisted in such a way that I thought his neck was broken. He was pinned up against the Plexiglas, looking like a bloody tissue sample placed on a slide. Everything around him in the copilot's area was covered in blood. I could see that he had a huge gash above his eye and a flap of skin, like a turkey's wattle, dangling down. I started beating on the glass and calling his name, but I wasn't getting anything back from him. I figured he had to be dead.
Above my own shouting, I heard the Sergeant Cruz shouting and the sound of gunfire raining down from above. Then I figured out what Cruz was yelling; he was shouting, "FARC! FARC! FARC!"
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Tommy J raise his head and then slump back down. Keith ran around to Tommy J's side to get him out, and ended up pulling out Tom Howes as well.
With Tommy J and Tom pulled safely from the plane and bullets flying all around us, it didn't take long for us to figure out that we'd just landed in the middle of a cadre of FARC guerrillas. I couldn't believe it. We'd survived the crash only to find ourselves in a situation that was arguably worse.
Tommy J and Tom were both in a bloodied daze off to the side of the plane. Tom glanced over at Keith.
"What do you think?" Tom asked.
Keith didn't hesitate, figuring it was better to let me, as the newly minted operations officer, know the reality as he saw it. "We, sir, are f***ed."
Excerpted from "Out of Captivity: Surviving 1, 967 Days in the Colombian Jungle" by Marc Gonsalves, Tom Howes, and Keith Stansell. Copyright © 2009 by Marc Gonsalves, Tom Howes, and Keith Stansell. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from William Morrow/An Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.