Algeria gas plant attack survivors tell their stories
Hostages came in contact with London, Ont. native Xristos Katsiroubas
During the deadly attack and hostage-taking at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria on Jan. 16, several of the captives came into contact with Xristos Katsiroubas, a 22-year-old man originally from London, Ont. who had converted to an extremist form of Islam.
In exclusive interviews with CBC News, several of his former hostages spoke about their experiences during the attack.
Here are their personal stories.
Cristobal ("Cris") Castro
Electrical engineer, BP
Worked at In Amenas for nearly two years
Cris Castro is an American, but given his Ecuadorian roots, he was often mistaken for an Algerian while working there. In what now seems like an ominous (but lifesaving) premonition, a colleague once told Castro that if he was ever in trouble while in the country, he should pretend to be in shock and make sounds that suggested he spoke Arabic.
So when one of the militants searching for foreigners at the In Amenas residential compound knocked down a door and found Castro behind a curtain in a bathroom, that’s exactly what he did — and it worked. Castro realized his good fortune when one of the militants told him to stay away from a group of foreigners.
"Only then I realized that indeed I have been taken for an Arab, [for] which I was very glad," he says.
For the rest of his time there, Castro remained in the company of the hundreds of Algerians whom the militants promised would not be harmed. Unlike the foreign hostages, Algerians were not bound, and they were free to move around the compound. No one gave Castro away. In fact, they protected him. At one point, they warned him that his nametag — a sure giveaway — was still dangling on his belt.
Exclusive on The National
Tonight and only on The National, we give you a virtual tour of that Algerian gas plant and hear stunning, detailed accounts of what one of the Canadian militants did, according to hostages held by him who lived to tell their stories.
At least one Algerian vouched for him when asked by a militant.
"That was really such an act, [an] incredible act of being unselfish, helping, compassion[ate]," he says.
When the Algerian army began its assault on the compound, hundreds of nationals simply walked out from a secondary gate and no militants tried to stop them. As they walked into the desert to safety, Castro was among them.
He carries heavy guilt for having survived when some of his colleagues did not.
"In my mind you’re not supposed to die there…you are supposed to come out of there alive.
"And so when somebody tells you that people are dead now, you’re really devastated."
Joseph "Jojo" Balmaceda
Senior instrument technician
Worked at In Amenas for eight years
As far as In Amenas stories go, Joseph Balmaceda’s has to be one of the most harrowing.
When the shooting started at the residential compound, he was in the parking lot with friends about to leave for work. They hit the ground at the guardhouse there, and laid low for hours. When they finally emerged, thinking it was safe, they walked straight into the hands of the militants.
They had their hands and feet tied. The next day, Balmaceda was among several foreign hostages forced to ride in a convoy as human shields when the militants attempted a getaway. Balmaceda was riding in the back of a van between two tires, next to a close colleague. In front were two militants. One of them was a suicide bomber who held a trigger for an improvised explosive device.
When Algerian helicopters strafed the convoy, Balmaceda’s friend was hit.
"He just made three deep breaths then. He lost his life, he died, in my arms," he says.
Shortly afterwards, Balmaceda heard the militant up front shout "Allahu Akbar!" and then an impossibly loud boom. When he came to, Balmaceda was surrounded by bodies and a mangled car wreck. "Oh I'm still alive! Luckily, I'm still alive," he recalls.
Before he could truly be safe, Balmaceda had one more hurdle: to evade a sniper who had begun shooting at him when Balmaceda started moving. Injured and exhausted — a bullet had grazed his head, too — he sprinted towards the Algerian military and then passed out. He continues to suffer from hearing loss due to the explosion, and also says he is constantly jumpy.
To this day, Balmaceda still has nightmares about the event.
Died during his second trip to the In Amenas plant
Victor Lovelady’s career centred on the oil business, but he rarely strayed far from Texas. For 23 years, he worked for the same firm in Houston.
But at 57, he was offered a job in Algeria that allowed for an irresistible retirement plan: work just three more years, make enough money to provide well for his wife and two children and retire in comfort at only 60.
"This was his dream," said his brother, Mike Lovelady.
Early in the morning of January 16, during Lovelady’s second rotation at In Amenas, militants attacked the gas plant.
It was the middle of the night in Nederland, Texas — Lovelady’s hometown, where his only sibling still lived — when the phone rang and woke up his brother and his wife.
"He said, ‘I’m in trouble,’" says Mike Lovelady, quoting his brother. Victor explained he’d been taken hostage, and wanted his brother to tell authorities and his family. It appears one of the attackers lent Lovelady the phone to make the call, because he said he couldn’t answer detailed questions.
It would be the last time the two brothers would ever speak.
Authorities told the family that on the first day of the attack, militants captured Victor Lovelady in the cafeteria at the living quarters, tied his hands and feet with "detcord," a highly explosive rope, and then made him sit with other foreign hostages in the courtyard overnight.
On the second day, Lovelady was one of the hostages the militants tried to move in an ill-fated convoy to the main gas facility. It was attacked by Algerian forces and the militants shot back. Suicide bombers also detonated explosives. Nearly all of the hostages were killed, including Lovelady. His remains were so damaged, they could only be identified by a lightning bolt on his arm — a surfing insignia from his youth.
The incident "left a hole in all of our hearts," says Mike Lovelady.
"I can understand cancer, I can understand car wrecks, but I can’t understand going to work and getting killed by terrorists."
Petroleum engineer, BP
Worked at In Amenas for six years
For days, Nick Frazier had put off a trip to the town of In Amenas to get fingerprinted to renew his visa to Algeria.
He was on the bus early one unlucky Wednesday morning. Just as the journey started, he heard a boom.
"I looked out the left hand side of the bus … and I could see red streaks passing … I realized those are bullets. It was constant, it was incessant, it was like rain on a on a tin roof," he says.
Frazier, who has a one-year old son, immediately texted his wife, Melissa, asking her to inform authorities.
"This is real. Do not call," he says he wrote. He also used his cell phone to occasionally scan his body for gun shot wounds.
For several hours, the militants and the bus army escort exchanged fire, while the 12 foreigners and Algerian driver were pinned down in the bus. Frazier thought they were extremely unlucky to end up in that position.
He thought he was going to die.
"I was 100 per cent sure. Yet I still maintained hope," he says.
The shooting did eventually stop, and an Algerian soldier appeared and asked them to jump out of the bus window. They crawled flat in the sand towards the army. For them it was over.
"We had thought that we were the unlucky ones, but it turned out that we were the most lucky," he says.
"Because everyone in the plant and the base were hostages."
Today, Frazier has nightmares and anxiety as a result of the incident, and the trauma makes him jumpy when he hears loud noises.
"It’s something that is going to be with me forever."
"Mohammed" (his real name has been hidden to protect his identity)
Worked at In Amenas
January 16 was a windy winter day in the desert, so it took a few minutes for Mohammed to realize that what he was hearing from afar was actually gunshots.
Soon, the sounds came closer, and what he heard turned out to be more than mere shots — namely, grenades going off and men yelling religious slogans.
He also heard the security alarm and was certain they were under attack.
He locked his room, and since there was nowhere to hide, he lay down on the floor next to his bed and waited. He texted with colleagues to try to understand what was happening. Then someone tried to break into his room and failed. On the second try, the attacker managed to get in.
"He pointed his Kalashnikov at me, asking if I was Algerian," says Mohammed, who asked, for reasons of safety, that his real name be withheld. The militant, who apparently had an Egyptian accent, asked Mohammed to tell him where to find the foreigners.
"I don’t know," Mohammed told him.
Like many other hostages, Algerian and otherwise, Mohammed ended up in the courtyard of the living quarters. He sat across from foreign colleagues, many of whom he considered friends. They were tied, but the Algerians were not.
"They were tied [up] looking at us, we were looking at them. I hope they understand that we were not able to help them," he says, breaking down in tears.
The following day, when Algerian forces began their assault to end the crisis, the large group of Algerian hostages (up to 400, says Mohammed) decided to flee. They walked into the desert with their hands up, and came upon several units of the Algerian army. At every stop, they were made to kneel in the sand until it could be verified they were not members of the militant group.
Mohammed says he agreed to tell his story so that Canadians can hear what happened, and perhaps that would help ensure nothing like it would ever happen again.
Mohammed says he lost friends in the carnage.
"It was a very nice place to work, and these sons of bitches have destroyed everything."