By Chris Vogel, Dallas Observer
Larry Plake was just outside the control tower on his way to bed aboard the Cheyenne, an oil barge anchored six miles off the coast of Nigeria, when he heard the shots. A veteran rig worker for a Houston-based oil and gas contractor, Plake, a Texan through and through, had just finished his evening shift and was in a bad mood after dining on a subpar version of African-style barbecued spareribs. At first, the “pop pop pop” sounded like someone lighting a blowtorch. But the deafening sound of bullets ricocheting off steel and bursting through the metal sides of the ship was unmistakable. They were under attack.
Plake never fit the stereotype of an offshore oilman. At 37, he was slight, with wiry arms and a head of prematurely gray hair. He’d worked offshore much of his adult life and was one of the few men aboard who’d earned a pair of college degrees along the way. But he was a hard-working, cocky son of a bitch with a young face and a dry sense of humor—all of which made him popular and a natural leader with the crew.
Plake entered the control room to find barge foreman Kevin Faller and fellow crewmembers Mike Roussel and Chris Gay crouched below the windows. They seemed paralyzed, so Plake grabbed the CB radio and began calling for help. He had memorized the security protocol checklist and began going through the steps.
“We’re taking hits,” he radioed a nearby support vessel, there to help Plake and the crew build pipelines for Chevron. “Cut and run! Cut and run!”
Plake couldn’t see a thing outside the tower. No one had seen the three speedboats approach in the night or the armed men climb aboard. He could barely make out the sound of footsteps heading toward him over the blare of machine-gun fire and explosions throughout the barge. Plake wanted to send out a flare, but was afraid he’d be shot if he opened a window.
Step two, thought Plake, as he radioed out to the armed security boat. Just as someone answered, a crowd of Nigerians with assault rifles kicked down the door and rushed into the control room.
The gunmen, dressed in red, white and black masks and camouflage pants, with chains of ammo draped across their bare chests, surrounded the four Americans. Someone jammed the point of a gun into the back of Plake’s head, forcing his face into the floor. One of the men cracked Faller across the cheek with his fist.
“Stay down, stay down,” Plake heard a man say in a deep voice. “We want your captain. Where is your captain?”
Refusing to give anyone up, Plake told the men that the captain should be waiting on the ship’s deck. They shoved him and the others down a series of ladders and stairs toward the lifeboats as bullets whizzed by. No other crewmembers were in sight.
Of the Cheyenne’s 11 armed guards, three had initially fought back but were wounded. The others, crewmembers later told Plake, tossed their guns overboard, tore off their security uniforms and scrambled to the belly of the ship to join the roughly 240 other crewmembers on board who had barricaded themselves inside their rooms. Only Plake, Roussel, Faller and Gay remained topside.
Minutes ticked by, and the gunmen were getting edgy. “Where is the captain?” they demanded over and over.
“Where is that damned security boat?” thought Plake.
Stalling for time, Plake insisted the captain should be there any moment. They waited as some of the attackers scavenged the ship for whatever they could snatch: cigarettes, ammo and binoculars. Plake didn’t know that the security ship was anchored a mile and a half away and wouldn’t get there for nearly another two hours.
“We can’t find the captain,” said a thick voice. “We’re taking you.”
They pushed the Americans toward the stern and then shoved them off the barge down into their speedboats. Plake and Faller were in one boat, Roussel and Gay in another. The speedboats peeled away from the barge, circling it while the kidnappers pumped more ammo into its sides. Then they raced after the ship that Plake had been able to warn over the radio.
Plake prayed that the guards aboard the support vessel wouldn’t open fire on them. The chase, however, didn’t last long, and Plake felt a moment of relief when the kidnappers stopped shooting and steered back toward shore.
The boats skimmed along the ocean’s surface toward the mouth of a river heading inland. Fifteen Nigerians were piled onto three 18-foot-long fiberglass speedboats with V-shaped hulls. Giant twin 275-horsepower engines hung off the back of each boat.
“Maybe I should jump,” thought Plake. But he couldn’t bring himself to abandon his companions. Instead, he sat silently, wondering where they were going and what was going to happen once they got there.
The boats wound along the oil-slicked waterways deep into the jungle. The jostling vibration of the motors roaring at top speed through narrow creeks nearly drowned out all other sounds. Plake could barely hear the man holding a flashlight in the bow who barked directions to the driver.
One of the men offered Plake a pack of the stolen cigarettes. Another cleaned his rifle, tossing empty shells into a bucket of diesel. Occasionally they would stop so the driver could replace an empty gas tank. Sometimes the boats broke down, and they’d float in silence as the men made repairs. Then it was full-throttle again until one of the drivers would inevitably ram into a log or run aground, nearly tossing everyone from the boat.
Just before dawn, the boats pulled up to a makeshift dock along the riverbank. For the first time, Plake could hear the sounds of the jungle, all the birds, lizards and insects surrounding him. Then Plake heard drumming. “It’s just like a King Kong movie,” he thought, as he watched villagers dancing, shouting and shooting their guns in the air.
They marched Plake and the others at gunpoint up a path into the camp. A medicine man splashed water on their faces, a blessing, they were told, allowing them to enter. The kidnappers forced their captives onto a hand-carved wooden bench and began interrogating them. “Name? Rank? Why are you in Nigeria taking all of the jobs?”
From the moment he was captured on May 7, 2007, Plake both hoped and feared that his kidnappers were members of a well-known insurgency group called the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND. For years, MEND had been kidnapping foreigners who worked for oil companies to use as leverage against Nigeria’s corrupt government officials, who reputedly have been hoarding the billions of dollars the country makes from selling its crude instead of investing the profits in roads, schools or clean drinking water for its people. MEND was known as a ruthless, professional outfit, but most of its hostages eventually made it out alive.
As the interrogation continued, it became clear that Plake’s kidnappers did not belong to MEND. These men said they belonged to the Niger-Delta Freedom Fighters, led by a rebel named Egbema One. They didn’t necessarily want to make a political statement. They wanted money—more than $1 million per hostage.
Convinced that his company would never pay such a steep price, Plake closed his eyes and breathed deeply, thinking, “This is where I’m probably going to die.”