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 Houston-based oil and gas contractor Global Industries, 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."
Oil's been pumping through Plake's veins since the day he was born.
He grew up in Baytown, home to the largest refinery in the country, owned by ExxonMobil. His grandfather was an offshore legend, and his father rolled up his sleeves on some of the toughest jobs in the business in the North Sea. So it was pretty much expected that after Plake graduated from Ross S. Sterling High School, he would enter the family trade.
He worked offshore from ages 19 to 25, in seas all around the globe, off the coasts of India, South America and Malaysia. He worked for four years in Nigeria. One day in 1995, his back went out, and he had to come ashore.
By that point Plake had married 19-year-old Collette, whom he'd met in a local bar one night while he was home on leave. Collette, who the following year would give birth to their first daughter, Alyssa, was relieved to see her husband sidelined with a bad back. She missed him terribly on those long three-month stints and, much like a policeman's wife, lived in constant fear of that phone call at 3 in the morning.
Unlike many offshore oilmen who get itchy and long for the sea every time they touch land, Plake was OK with finding a new life. He had always been good with all things mechanical, earning him the nickname "MacGyver" among his friends, and enrolled in Baytown's Lee College, where he earned a degree in electronics. Plake next went to a specialty trade school in Watertown, Massachusetts, called the Ritop School for Mobile Electronics, where he learned to wire radios in exotic cars like Ferraris and Bentleys. With all his training, it didn't take Plake long to get a job in Deer Park, Texas, and start a new chapter.
But it wasn't easy. After 9/11, the economy seized up, and no one was spending money on luxury car radios. Plake bounced around for a while, eventually taking a job in Addison. But when the company hired too many radio installers, there wasn't enough work to go around, and Plake's paycheck once again nosedived. To support his family, which now included a second daughter, Jadyn, he delivered pizzas for Domino's, working for tips.
Late in 2006, the idea of again going offshore took hold of Plake. He was one week away from having his new home in McKinney put up for auction because he couldn't pay the mortgage, was working two jobs, never saw his wife and kids, and still couldn't make ends meet. He needed money, and fast.
"He came home one day," Collette says, "and said to me, 'Honey, I have no choice; I don't want to go back, but I have to.' He was crying for the first time in years."
(While giving interviews for this story, Plake and his wife were careful never to mention the name of the company he worked for, as per a legal agreement. The Houston Press, the Observer's sister paper, confirmed through news accounts and public records that Plake was working for Global Industries, which was doing contract work for Chevron. Global Industries did not return phone calls seeking comment.)
When Plake set off in March 2007 for the Cheyenne, both he and Collette went in with open eyes; they knew about the many assaults and kidnappings in the region where Plake was headed. For decades, as they understood it, corrupt Nigerian government officials had been pocketing more than their share of the country's oil revenues instead of investing them in developing the nation and helping their people.
According to University of Houston associate professor of history Kairn Klieman, who teaches classes about Africa including "Africa and the Oil Industry," the Nigerian government took control of the country's oil revenues following a civil war in the late 1960s. The government then purposefully left the Niger Delta region massively underdeveloped—no roads, electricity, clean water or jobs—hoping this would stave off any further attempts at revolution. Instead, people living there have suffered terribly, and vigilantism has become a way of life.
"Because the government was so greedy for oil revenues," Klieman says, "they let the oil companies work without following any kind of environmental regulations. So the land, the water, the air is all devastated, and the people there can't even live in the normal, old-fashioned way, which was to grow food. It's not even possible to live in the 19th-century model there anymore."
Nigeria ranks as the 121st most corrupt country in the world and is ranked No. 22 in Africa, according to the Corruption Perceptions Index published by Transparency International, a global corruption watchdog group. The country's score of 2.7 out of 10 in 2008 was an improvement over its score of 2.2 in 2007, the year Plake was taken hostage. By comparison, Somalia, which has made headlines this year for acts of piracy off its shores, was ranked as the 180th most corrupt country in the world in 2008 and came in at No. 47 in Africa.
According to Oyibos Online, a Web site that tracks security incidents in Nigeria, 62 foreigners have been kidnapped so far this year. In 2008, 81 were taken. In 2007, the year Plake was captured, 172 people were abducted. That's not to mention the hundreds of maritime assaults, hijackings and pipeline bombings over the same time span.
"You've heard of 'blood diamonds'?" Plake says. "In Nigeria they call it 'blood oil' because of all the deaths and kidnappings over it. They'll steal and kill their own brother because they're such a depressed people. Life is cheap."
Tribes and insurgency groups take hostages who work for the very oil companies that the government relies on to extract and move the country's vast reserves. Their stated political goal is to stop the country's ability to export oil and thus end the corruption, as well as to pressure the government to develop the region.
But nothing is ever so cut-and-dried. Motivations range from obtaining basic necessities to pure greed. Much of the environmental devastation is the result of insurgents blowing up pipelines to make their point and then attacking crews sent in to repair the damage. Many times the men will "bunker," or tap into, a pipeline to steal the oil—which they sell on the black market to pay for weapons and provisions—leaving a busted pipe spitting oil into the ground.
A central problem, Klieman says, is that the oil companies simply factor the cost of ransoms and hostage-rescue missions into the price of doing business, making the insurgents' efforts effectively moot.
Moot, that is, to everyone except the men who are taken hostage and their families.
Exhausted and in shock after being kidnapped and interrogated for most of the day, Plake, Roussel, Faller and Gay were searched and stripped of their wallets, watches, necklaces and cell phones. One of the militants demanded Plake give up his wedding ring, but Plake refused, insisting that his wife had put it on his finger and he'd be damned if it was coming off while he was still alive. Another villager stepped forward, telling Plake he could keep it because Plake was a Christian. By some miracle, they didn't find Plake's pocketknife, which he hid in his shoe.
That first night, the men were locked in a crudely fashioned thatched-roof hut with screen windows and walls made out of pegboard. Inside there was a table, a bench and a fan connected to a small generator stashed in the corner. A naked light bulb swinging from the ceiling burned brightly all night.
When the men were finally alone, panic set in. They knew the Nigerian military was afraid of venturing this deep into the jungle and that they might as well be trapped on an island. A thousand thoughts raced through Plake's mind, always ending with, "I think we're pretty much fucked."
Plake slept less than an hour that first night, next to Faller on one of two thin foam mattresses in the room.
The next day, on Tuesday, May 8, Plake woke up at 5 a.m. to beating drums and gunfire—a ritual that would continue throughout their captivity. A man unlocked the door and led the hostages to the side of the building, where each was given a plastic lawn chair to sit in all day. This became the daily routine.
That night, in McKinney, Collette was feeling anxious as she rushed through the front door of her suburban home. She had just picked up her daughters from gymnastics and had to get them fed, but all she could think about was that her husband was going to be mad at her. They had a standing appointment every night to talk on Skype, an Internet telephone service, and she was late. She tried to get online, but the connection wasn't working, so Collette walked upstairs to her bedroom to cool off. The phone rang.
Thinking it must be her husband, she headed back downstairs to pick up the main phone in the kitchen, but the answering machine beat her to it.
"I never caught their name," Collette says. "He just said, 'This is so-and-so from Larry's company,' and my heart sank because I knew."
Collette picked up the phone and listened as the man told her that Plake's barge had been attacked. No one knew if he'd been kidnapped, only that he was missing.
"I got so angry right there on the phone," Collette says. "I blamed them and said, 'You better find him and get him back! So help me God, if he dies over there, I'll own your company!'"
When she hung up, she turned and saw her two daughters staring at her. They had heard every word.
"Is Daddy dead?" asked 5-year-old Jadyn.
"No, baby," Collette answered, hugging them tight. "Right now the bad men with guns have Daddy. But we're going to get him back."
Collette is a no-nonsense woman with a sharp voice that could split a diamond. Furious at what had happened, she called everyone she knew—family, neighbors—telling them the news. Yet she was just as angry at herself for letting Plake go. Down deep she knew this would happen. It had only been a matter of time. She and Plake had been talking on Skype for weeks about how an increasing number of hostages were being taken. There had been several recent kidnappings in the same area where Plake was captured.
Collette did not sleep that night. Her sister drove up from Baytown and arrived around 4 a.m.
Amazingly enough, Plake called the house that afternoon, saying he was alive and in the middle of nowhere. He sounded frantic, but said he'd call again and then hung up. Collette felt relieved, but knew the hard part was still to come. She had to get him home.
That night, agents from the FBI showed up at her door. They tapped her phone, put a tracking device on it in case Plake called again and told her that if he did call, to let the FBI know before she told anyone else.
Collette says that when Global Industries found out about the FBI's request, they got upset. She says a company representative told her that if Plake or his captors contacted her again, she should call Global Industries first and the FBI after that. Collette says company officials told her that they didn't want anyone to interfere with their rescue efforts.
"I felt so stressed-out and conflicted," Collette says. "But the FBI explained to me that my husband was now a U.S. hostage because of the company, and there went my loyalty. Every time Larry called, I'd call the FBI first."
Global Industries officials also discouraged Collette from talking to the other three crewmembers' wives, threatened to cut off her home phone line if they thought she was trying to negotiate with the militants and forbade her to talk to the media, Collette says. The only news item she saw was on a CNN ticker that said four Americans had been taken off the Nigerian coast.
All of the additional pressure helped push Collette into a deep depression. Her mother and sister cared for the kids while Collette spent day and night in her living room. She didn't eat, losing 20 pounds. Plake would occasionally call, but as the days rolled by it felt like no one was making any progress. On Mother's Day, she received a bouquet of flowers from Plake that he had ordered online the day before he was kidnapped.
From the moment they arose each morning, Plake's kidnappers, wearing nothing but boxer shorts, started drinking, smoking dope, shooting their guns straight up in the air and arguing. They kept their marijuana in 50-pound rice sacks and would put what they didn't smoke into jars of moonshine made out of palm tree sap to ferment. Invariably drunk by noon, they'd gulp down this potent mix until they passed out at night, but not before a couple of the militants would typically get into a fight and go after each other with machetes or clubs.
In the humid afternoons, while Plake sat bored in his chair, many of his captors would play cards or huddle around a small television and watch the same five Rambo and Jean-Claude Van Damme films over and over.
Then it dawned on Plake, This isn't enjoyment for them, it's training. They think it's real. The men asked Plake how many people had died in the movies. He had to explain that it was just Hollywood.
There was bottled water to drink, but not much in the way of food. One morning the villagers tossed a chicken in a pot of water and boiled it all day. When it came time to eat, the meat was so rubbery and overcooked that Plake couldn't pull it off the bone. Another time they dug a trench and slaughtered a sickly goat. There was a cache of potted meat and canned tuna fish, which became Plake's meal, mixed with a sweet blend of rice and corn served daily at 4 p.m. After several weeks, Plake convinced his captives to push dinnertime back so that he could avoid the hordes of flies that would swarm around his plate, preferring to eat amid the mosquitoes that came out at night.
Before bed, Plake stripped off his filthy jeans down to his boxers to stay cool. His fair-skinned body, peppered with swollen red bug bites, became a testament to jungle living.
Some of the villagers bathed in the polluted river; Plake did not. He had a spider bite on his left ankle that was oozing pus and he wasn't about to dip it in the same water that the entire village used as a toilet. Instead, he just rubbed soap under his arms and apologized for his stench. Nor would Plake shave with the razors used by the militants for fear of getting AIDS. At one point, his white moustache flopped down over his bottom lip.
At night, the Americans would stay up late plotting their escape, hatching scenario after scenario. One had Plake taking out a guard with his pocketknife while the other men grabbed his gun. "But what then?" Plake thought. "What if we do take the camp over? We've got to motor out. But what if we run into them on the river? We don't know where to go anyway. Plus they have lookouts along the creek in crow's nests with machine guns. We'd be sitting ducks."
Plake started giving his kidnappers nicknames such as "Mike the Administrator," "Ben the Weapons Expert" and "Bubba the Explosives Guy." Many of them told Plake they dreamed of one day going to the United States to be criminals there. They wanted to rob banks and get rich, and they all seemed to admire Osama bin Laden. When Plake told them that the al-Qaida leader had killed innocent people during 9/11, they didn't seem to care. They felt he was a hero for standing up against America.
Over time, Plake got to know "Sonny the Cook," who was in charge of making sure the hostages had food, bottled water and cigarettes. Sonny told Plake that all he really wanted was to open a restaurant in the United States. Plake began to sympathize with his captors. While taking hostages wasn't the way to go about it, he understood why they were fighting their government for basic rights. All this oil money was pouring into the country, yet their government treated them like animals.
The leader of the Niger-Delta Freedom Fighters was called Egbema One. He told Plake he was a prince and had once worked offshore as a ballast control engineer. He wanted to use the hostages as political leverage, but it soon became clear to Plake that Egbema One was in the minority. Everyone else just wanted cash. And when Egbema One left the camp to get supplies, tensions would rise. The militants would force Plake to use a prepaid cell phone with a bamboo-and-wire antenna to phone Global Industries, his wife or Nigerian politicians, demanding the ransom.
"Tell them to send the money now!" the militants shouted in Plake's face. "We're gonna kill you tomorrow if we don't get the money!"
The men cracked the side of their rifles against the back of Plake's neck and threatened him constantly. One of the larger men repeatedly said he was going to cut off Plake's pinky finger and send it to Plake's employer to prove he wasn't playing around. Then he'd laugh in Plake's face. The bomb-maker told Plake he'd never get out alive, and that he'd made a special explosive for Plake if it ever looked like the Texan was going to be released.
The kidnappers set up a bench about 50 yards into the jungle, hidden from the camp. Every time they heard a noise, be it a voice, a boat or the snap of a twig, they'd grab the hostages and hurriedly beat them like horses toward the clearing, where they'd wait until whatever it was had passed. After just a few times, the men learned to race over to the spot themselves whenever they heard something, day or night. The kidnappers told Plake that if anyone tried to rescue them, they'd execute the hostages before returning to defend the village. This happened as many as 10 times a day.
Hostage negotiations seemed to be going nowhere.
One of the phone numbers Plake had to contact Global Industries 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 Global executives 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.
Collette had just returned home from a rare trip to McDonald's with the kids when the phone rang. It was someone from Global Industries.
"We've got him," said the voice.
The next day she was on a flight to London.
Because of convoluted English insurance laws, Plake and the other men were not allowed into the tropical disease center. Instead, they went to an urgent-care clinic. Other than the nasty spider bite, Plake checked out OK. Two of the other men had intestinal parasites and had to remain there a little longer that day. But not Plake; he was ready to go. For the past 48 hours, he'd been shuttled across two continents, poked and prodded by doctors, forced to do press interviews with the African media and listen to Global Industries officials tell him to keep quiet about everything that had happened. All he wanted to do was to see his wife.
Collette was sleeping when Plake finally made it back to the couple's London hotel room. His electronic key, though, had been accidentally knocked offline when Collette checked in earlier that day. He couldn't unlock the door. He started banging and hollering, but Collette didn't answer. Finally, Collette heard the knocking and ran to the door. When it swung open, she leapt into Plake's arms.
"You couldn't peel me off of him," she says.
That night, the four men and their wives celebrated, getting drunk at a nearby pub. They laughed and kidded each other about which movie stars would play them if their story ever made it to the big screen. Plake claimed fellow East Texan Matthew McConaughey. But the smiles wouldn't last long.
Back in McKinney, Plake was not readjusting well to normal life. For months he didn't want to talk about being kidnapped. He had nightmares. Sometimes he thought he'd heard footsteps and was ready to run over to the clearing in the jungle to hide. Other times he dreamed of being under attack on the barge, but this time he had a gun and fought back. He'd wake up lathered in sweat.
Plake saw a couple psychologists, but they didn't seem to help. He even checked himself into a mental hospital for a week. Time seemed to be the only cure. Plake had surgery on his spine in late 2008 to repair two discs that had been ruptured by repeated blows to the neck with rifles.
He now suffers migraines so bad that his vision is blurred and he throws up. He takes a long list of medications, including pills to fight depression, anxiety and pain.
Plake says he doesn't trust anyone anymore, no longer has a short-term memory and has developed a dangerously short fuse. He's caught himself yelling at his kids over dumb stuff such as eating an ice cream cone that he'd forgotten he himself had given them. He refuses to sit in plastic chairs and doesn't shave. It's taken him two years to start working again. He recently bought a property nearby that he's renovating and hoping to flip for a profit.
"Larry never regretted going back offshore," Collette says, "because he saved our home from being sold out from under us. But it's something he'll never get over. He just has to learn to live with it. It redefines who you are."
Plake still keeps up with Faller, Roussel and Gay. Scattered across Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, they couldn't get together for a second anniversary at the end of May. When they talk on the phone, they almost never mention what happened. They stick to what's going on now in their lives, their jobs and their kids. Plake says he's never going back offshore. Some of the others are considering it, he says, but no farther away than the Gulf of Mexico. The money is still as good as it's ever been.
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For a long time, Plake would search the Internet every morning for news of Egbema One or MEND. Not anymore.
Earlier this year, Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua granted amnesty to a host of militants in the Niger Delta. According to Vanguard, a news publication covering the country, Egbema One was on the amnesty list. Yar'Adua has also reportedly directed his government to step up its efforts to rebuild and develop the region. But still, the violence only seems to increase. MEND has recently taken credit for a rash of pipeline bombings against Shell and Chevron, propelling Chevron to evacuate hundreds of employees from the area, according to The Christian Science Monitor. The group continues to wage attacks against the oil companies, claiming that amnesty is not enough to solve the long-standing problems.
The irony of it all is not lost on Plake.
"The group I had heard about and was most afraid of, MEND, were the ones who ended up rescuing us," he says. "I've been told it never happened before or ever since. I understand their plight more now and the reason why they do all this. I'm very appreciative because no one else was coming to get us. But the bottom line is that I got out. I'm here now, and I'm staying put."