Hostage negotiations seemed to be going nowhere.
One of the phone numbers Plake had to contact his employer had been disconnected. When he dialed the company’s main switchboard, Plake says, a company operator couldn’t hear him, cursed at Plake and refused to patch him through. The kidnappers had Plake call the president of Nigeria, but his secretary would have nothing to do with them. The prepaid phone credits would always run out in the middle of conversations. The militants, just for the hell of it, once set off a bomb behind Plake while he was on the phone, knocking down the bamboo antenna. Disgusted, Plake stormed back toward his plastic chair, knocking over a table of automatic rifles.
“This is like working with children,” Plake thought.
At home in McKinney, Collette was just as frustrated.
“I got so that I was losing my mind because it kept dragging on and on,” she says. “I kept thinking, ‘I can’t bear to wake up another day and sit in my house all day long’…I felt so helpless. It was like I was a hostage in my own prison camp.”
As the days slogged on, Plake suffered mood swings. There were moments of peacefulness, when Plake would sit in his plastic chair twisting his wedding ring around his finger for hours at a time, picturing taking his wife and daughters bowling. He took comfort knowing he had a will, and they would be taken care of if he died. The hostages relied heavily on each other. When Plake lost it, they’d calm him down. When one of the others cried, prompting the militants to laugh, Plake would stand up and say, “Just because he’s crying doesn’t mean he’s not a man.”
There were also days when Plake felt resigned and became aggressive. If the kidnappers didn’t kill him, he thought, then someone or something else would. He was sick of the abuse and the false threats to blow him up or slice off his finger.
“There’s no way I’m spending six months here,” he told his captors. “You’ll have to kill me.”
He clutched his knife like a security blanket. He knew he’d never get out alive, but thought, “God, give me a sign to let me know it’s go time. I’ll send a few of these guys to hell before they send me to heaven.”
But he never got the chance. “Gunboat Sunday” intervened.
During the weeks of negotiations, members of MEND had discovered that the Niger-Delta Freedom Fighters had kidnapped the Americans and were demanding a huge ransom. This rubbed them the wrong way. MEND believed hostages were to be used to achieve political leverage against the corrupt government, not for individual gain. They decided to teach this small band of extortionists a lesson.
On Sunday, May 27, 2007, MEND staged a rescue mission. As MEND’s boats neared the shore, Plake’s kidnappers started whooping, shrieking and firing their guns. Someone grabbed the hostages and pushed them toward the river, telling them they were being placed in the middle of the battle. That way, the man said, bullets from MEND would kill them and their deaths would not be the kidnappers’ fault.
As Plake ducked and tried to crawl out of the way, the MEND boats retreated. They saw what was happening with the hostages and never fired a shot, disappearing as abruptly as they had arrived.
Plake and the other three hostages ran back to their room and locked the door. A moment later, a muscular, 6-foot-tall man named Jean-Paul kicked it down and pointed a gun at them. Plake thought he was dead for sure, but suddenly a group of villagers tackled Jean-Paul and wrestled the weapon away from him. With MEND closing down on the camp, the hostages were now more of a liability than ever. Many villagers, like Jean-Paul, simply wanted to get rid of them to save their own hides.
After the commotion died down, the insurgents let the hostages use the phone. Plake called his parents and then Collette to say his final goodbyes.
“There are some things going down over here, and it doesn’t look good,” he calmly told his wife, who was crying on the other end. “The chances of me coming home are pretty slim. Take good care of the kids. I’ve always loved you.”
The next morning, members of MEND and tribal elders from a nearby village visited the camp and met with Egbema One all day. At one point, Sonny said to Plake in pidgin English, “Maybe you go home today. They talking serious.” Plake refused to believe it. He didn’t trust anyone. But that evening, the hostages were told to pack up; they were heading out.
Egbema One escorted the hostages by boat to the nearby village. There, Plake saw a sack of money change hands. Egbema One then took Plake’s wrist and placed it in the hand of an elderly man named Good Luck, who walked with a cane and wore flowing white clothes.
“You belong to me now,” Good Luck said. “You’ll be leaving soon.”
Leaving Egbema One and the Freedom Fighters behind, the hostages and members of MEND piled into another boat and began motoring toward the MEND camp. Plake wasn’t convinced he’d be set free, but was hoping the new camp would at least be a little better. They snaked along the river for more than six hours. Occasionally the driver would tell Plake not to smoke because there was so much oil in the water. The members of MEND ridiculed the Freedom Fighters, calling them “little boys” and “dogs.”
Finally, the boat pulled up to the MEND village. Just as when he first arrived at the Freedom Fighters’ camp 21 days earlier, medicine men splashed water on Plake, blessing him as he entered. He was marched into a concrete building with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s stacked against the wall and told that a helicopter would get him in the morning. It was like entering a military barracks after spending weeks at a Boy Scout camp.
Plake didn’t sleep much that night. The morning came and went. No chopper. “Maybe at noon,” a MEND soldier said. Still no helicopter. Plake just figured this was yet another lie and he was screwed. Then, at about 6 p.m. Plake and the other hostages were loaded onto a boat.
They cruised along the water in silence. The canal was getting wider and wider, spanning more than 100 feet across. In the middle of the river, the driver suddenly cut the engine. Plake looked around, thinking: “This is it. They’re going to kill us now and dump the bodies.”
Plake watched as the driver’s hand slowly disappeared into his coat pocket. Plake reached for his knife. Then he saw the man’s hand emerge; he was holding a cell phone.
“We’ve got them,” the man said into the speaker.
Before he knew it, Plake was stepping out of the boat and onto a dock near Warri, a major city in the Niger Delta, where a car whisked him off to the governor’s house to meet up with executives from his company and FBI agents who were waiting. From there, he flew to Lagos and then to London to see a tropical disease expert.
After 22 days, Plake, Faller, Roussel and Gay were finally free.