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

Americans held in captivity on harsh treatment, daring rescue, renewed hope.

Feb. 26, 2009 — -- 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.

"You have these kids who are just brainwashed and brought into this thing," Stansell said. "They will, in one second, turn on you and kill you if they have to. In another second, they're just playing yo-yos."

"They had never seen Americans except for on TV," said Gonsalves. "Movies like 'The Matrix.' And they actually believed that what they saw on TV was real, you know. And, and one of them even asked us how it was that we could dodge bullets like they did in the 'Matrix' movies."

FARC Soldier: 'Our Orders Are to Massacre You'

Living conditions at the camps were severe. The captives often slept on a tarp in the mud, and bathed periodically in a river. The jungle with its thick growth felt like a cave, and though they were now living outside, the men went weeks without ever seeing the sun.

They did see strange jungle creatures, from snakes to scorpions to "gigantic ants which bite, but they also sting," Gonsalves said.

The men were given meager meals of rice and watery soup. To fight off starvation, they ate turtle, monkey ... and everything in between. To survive, all three clung to thoughts of home and loved ones. For Howes, it was his 5-year-old son Tommy Jr. at the bus stop on his way to school.

For Gonsalves, it was the smell of shampoo in his 9-year-old daughter's hair.

"Memories can be a good thing and they could fuel you, fuel you to survive. But they can also be a bad thing because they can be very painful," he said. "And that memory about smelling my daughter's hair was something that caused me immense pain because I missed her so much."

In July 2003, five months after they were captured, the FARC guerrillas arranged for a journalist to videotape the hostages to prove to the world they were alive. They hoped the images of the three men would force the U.S. government to negotiate for their release, a violation of American policy. The men were dressed in clean clothes and brought to a shack for the interview.

One at a time, the hostages pleaded against any armed rescue attempt. They did not believe they would survive it.

"The translator said, 'Hey, you know, if the U.S. comes to rescue you guys, our orders are to massacre you,'" said Gonsalves.

And while the cameras were rolling, the men found out that three colleagues and friends had tried to rescue them and that their plane had crashed.

"It was like somebody had just laid a blanket of death on us," Gonsalves said. "And it's like death upon death and you start to wonder, 'OK, when is it going to be my turn, when am I going to die here?' It could be at any moment."

The journalist played Gonsalves a message from his mother from her home in Connecticut.

"It was just so painful to see home which, at that point, had become a fantasy because it was so far away," he said. "The thought of freedom was just so far from reality."

Before they were taken back to their jungle prison camp, the men were given a chance to record what may be their final words to their loved ones back home. Gonsalves pleaded with his wife Shane not to forget him. Stansell told his children in Florida to be brave.

"I felt like, for the first time in six months, which seemed like the longest I've ever been away from my dad," recalled Stansell's daughter Lauren, who was 14 at the time of his capture. "He was right there where I could touch him."

But just as suddenly, they were gone. The three men, fathers, husbands each, melted back into the jungles at gunpoint. They spent months, and years, moving from one prison camp to another. At one of those camps, there was a small gesture of kindness from one of their ruthless kidnappers. They got access to a transistor radio to share, a tiny treasure that became a lifeline to the outside world.

Family and Relationships Suffer From Long Captivity

There are so many hostages in Colombia that radio stations there devote time for people to talk to their family members locked up in the jungle. Soon, the three men were spending hours clustered around the radio, hoping to hear even a short message sent by telephone from home.

"It opens up a valve and your emotions spill out," said Gonsalves.

"The radio for us was a way to stay attached to the world, to humanity," added Stansell. "And to hear any news about our children, you know, was incredible."

Stansell was thrilled to hear from his kids, but when he finally got a message from his fiancée Malia, he realized something had changed. She didn't say "I love you."

As months turned into years, Gonsalves and Howes also felt their bonds with their wives slipping away, but the radio also brought the renewal of a relationship, in the voice of a woman Stansell never expected to hear from again.

Before the crash, he'd been having an affair with a Colombian flight attendant named Patricia Medina.

"I was doing a bad thing," Stansell said. "I was living a double life. I'm not proud of it but it's the truth."

Just before he was taken hostage, Stansell had learned Medina was pregnant with twins, but he told her that while he would support his children, he intended to marry his fiancée in the U.S.

"I was pregnant, we weren't married, so I was alone with the boys," Medina said. "Their father taken by the guerillas, and nobody knows when he's going to come back. So it was very sad."

As the years wore on, it became clear to Stansell that his fiancée had decided to move on, but Medina continued to send messages.

I said, "I love you, I want to be with you, and I want to be, have a family," she said. "I couldn't forget him. I was having lunch, dinner, and working, and he always was on my mind."

For more than three years, the men were told they might soon be released, only to have their hopes dashed. At times they were chained to each other or to a hammock post for 24 hours a day.

In late 2007, the FARC made a second proof of life video in an effort to force a prisoner exchange. Since the last video in 2003, the men had clearly lost weight, and Stansell's stepmother recalled thinking her son looked "like he's been through hell."

Neither the hostages nor their kidnappers could know that everything was about to change. The Colombian military, with help from the U.S., had cracked the kidnappers' radio codes. As the army eavesdropped on the terrorists' communications, they hatched an audacious plan to rescue the hostages.

"It's like playing poker," said Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian minister of defense. "You need to have a bit of luck. You need to know how the other people who are playing think and you must outwit them."

The plan was simple, dangerous and incredibly bold. It was inspired by the release of another group of hostages in early 2008 to aid workers from the Red Cross. The military sent a phony radio message to the terrorists, telling them that the terrorist leader wanted to see the hostages for himself. They said a group of humanitarian aid workers would fly 15 hostages and two terrorists to their leader. In fact, the "aid workers" would actually be Colombian commandos. They would be unarmed during the mission, and to prepare for their roles, they had to take acting classes to work on new identities and foreign accents.

Daring Rescue of Hostages: 'We're Out of Here'

On the morning of July 2, 2008, Gonsalves, Stansell and Howes emerged from the jungle, joined by the other Colombian hostages. All watched nervously as the fake "humanitarian workers" got out of the helicopter, including a phony television crew recording the event. As part of the plan, the commandos moved to tie the hostages' hands, but Howes resisted.

"He said, 'I'm not going to be handcuffed like an animal and put on this helicopter,'" recalled Stansell.

One of the workers introduced himself as an Australian, but his accent seemed off, and Stansell nearly blew his cover.

"He said, 'trust me, I'm going to get you out of here,'" Stansell said. "And I looked at him and I said ... 'I don't need to hear any more than that, we're out of here.'"

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."