Americans in Algeria: Surviving a terrorist attack
The following is a script from "Attack in Algeria" which aired on Feb. 10, 2013. Charlie Rose is the correspondent. Howard L. Rosenberg and Julie Holstein, producers.
60 Minutes Overtime
Three weeks ago, al Qaeda fighters launched a bold, deadly attack on a gas processing plant in North Africa and killed 37 foreign workers. Survivors said the assault was well-planned and well-executed. Though details about the identities and motives of the invaders remain murky, the attack is evidence that the threat from al Qaeda is still potent. And the group's goal remains the same: to attack Americans and other Westerners where ever they may be, even on a barren patch of the Sahara desert. There were eight Americans at the Algerian gas plant when the terrorists struck. Three died. Five survived. Tonight you'll hear for the first time from three of them.
Steve Wysocki: I was a hundred percent sure I was going to die.
Charlie Rose: So each of you thought you were going to die?
Steve Wysocki: Yes.
Nick Frazier: Absolutely certain.
Mark Cobb: There was no doubt in my mind that a lot of people were going to die through this event.
The event -- a three-pronged attack -- unfolded before dawn on Wednesday, January 16. Thirty-two al Qaeda fighters stormed this sprawling natural gas field.
They sprayed buildings and vehicles with automatic weapons and launched rocket-propelled grenades.
These three men -- Nick Frazier, Mark Cobb and Steve Wysocki -- all worked for the oil company BP, all witnessed the simultaneous assaults. They showed us where they were on a satellite photo of the gas field.
Steve Wysocki: My office was approximately right there.
Wysocki, an oil and gas well expert, was at the main production plant in a small office building.
Mark Cobb: I was actually located in this building right here.
Cobb, BP's manager at the facility was in his office near the residential camp, home to 800 workers, mostly Algerians.
Frazier, a petroleum engineer, was on a bus bound for a nearby town. It had just pulled out of the main gate.
Nick Frazier: I heard something. And my initial reaction was, "Oh no, we've blown a tire. We're going to be here forever."
Charlie Rose: It sounded like a blown tire?
Nick Frazier: Yeah. Then I looked out the left hand window. And I saw dozens and dozens and dozens of red streaks pass the left-hand side of the bus.
Charlie Rose: You were under attack?
Nick Frazier: Yes. People started to scramble. And then bullets started to come through the front windshield. Everyone was, as fast as they could, getting to where they could lay down in the walkway of the seats and get as flat as possible. I don't know. Everyone was so calm. You just--you become so calm. It wasn't how I thought I would re-- have reacted at all.
Charlie Rose: No screaming? No--
Nick Frazier: It was very silent, very organized. It was as if we had trained for it, but we hadn't. You could hear bullets starting to hit tthe side of the bus. And it wasn't one, two, or three bullets. It was hundreds. It was just constant on the side of the bus. I texted my wife, "The bus is under attack. Call the embassy. This is real. Do not call me."
Charlie Rose: You have to be wanting to tell her, "If I don't get back, I want you to know everything I feel."
Nick Frazier: I didn't do that. And part of it might be because I didn't want to give up hope. And another because I didn't want her to think that I was going to die. I think between those two reasons, I never really said goodbye.
Algerian soldiers came to the rescue from a nearby base and battled the militants for three hours.
Nick Frazier: They saved our lives. They returned fire. Heavy, heavy, heavy gunfire. They stood by the bus and shot back and kept the terrorists from getting onto the bus, which is, I'm assuming, their intent.
Finally, the soldiers took Frazier and the others on the bus to safety. For Nick Frazier, the terror was over.
But here, at this Spartan work camp where Mark Cobb lived and worked, a second group of al Qaeda fighters had seized control.
Mark Cobb: My first reaction was to call my boss in London.
Charlie Rose: What was the message?
Mark Cobb: My message to him was very simple. "We're under a major terrorist attack."
Charlie Rose: You felt it, at that moment?
Mark Cobb: Oh, it was clear. I was guessing that I was hearing gunfire involving probably 20-plus individuals trading fire. It was that kind of intensity. By that point in time, I could hear very clearly gunfire inside the camp itself. So I knew the camp had been attacked. And I was looking out the window myself. And I saw three terrorists in the parking lot. And that's the point in time where I realized I needed to hide.
Charlie Rose: Had it occurred to you by this time, "I'm an American, an expat. I'm a manager here. Maybe they're coming for me"?
Mark Cobb: Absolutely. I knew as the highest-ranking American on the site, I would be a prize. They put the highest value on American hostages, British hostages and French hostages.
Cobb gathered his staff in one room and locked the door. He crouched behind a filing cabinet as his coworkers hid him.
Mark Cobb: I sat in a small ball in the corner. And they took all the maps. And they laid them over the top of my head. And they stacked the maps in front, where the small gap was between the metal cabinet. And, basically hid me.
Charlie Rose: Did you feel safe?
Mark Cobb: No. If they started poking at the maps with an AK-47 or peeling maps off the top of me, I knew it was over with, yeah. I heard them kick open the front door. That's I guess at the point, in all honesty, that I felt pure terror. I felt I was going to be taken. So at that point, I elected to begin to make my calls to my family and say my goodbyes.
Charlie Rose: Who did you call?
Mark Cobb: I called my daughter-in-law. My son works for BP in the Gulf of Mexico. He was on a rig. He was on shift. So I called her. And I told her--
Charlie Rose: What did you say?
Mark Cobb: I told her that I loved her. I told her that I loved my grandbaby. I told her to please get a hold of my son and to tell him that, you know, I couldn't ever ask for a better son. And my cell phone buzzed. And I looked down. It was my son calling me. He called me back, very emotional. Asked me if-- was it really that bad? And I said, "Yeah, it was, son."
Charlie Rose: You're whispering?
Mark Cobb: Yeah, I'm whispering. I said, "I'm not sure I'm going to make it." And I told him I had to get off the phone, because then they were kicking the doors in closer to where I was, the room I was hiding in. And I hung up the phone with him.
Charlie Rose: Can you hear your heartbeat in a moment like this?
Mark Cobb: Oh yeah, especially sitting in that corner. Dead still, you know? You don't even want to breathe deeply, because it might rustle the paper on top of you.
Charlie Rose: And what are you hearing?
Mark Cobb: I'm hearing the distinct sound of a boot going into a door. But by the grace of God, there was only two doors they didn't kick in in that office building. And one of those two was the door I was behind.
Charlie Rose: Why do you think that's true?
Mark Cobb: I have no idea. I have no idea why they didn't kick that door in.
After hiding for several hours, Cobb decided to risk an escape. He scurried to the perimeter fence, dove through a hole, and ran for his life across the desert to the Algerian military base a half-mile away.
Both Cobb and Frazier got out. Cobb's friend, fellow Texan Victor Lovelady, was not so lucky. He was taken hostage at the camp where Cobb was hiding.
At the massive gas plant up the road, a third group of al Qaeda terrorists marauded through the giant maze of pipes and machinery, looking for more hostages.
Steve Wysocki: We started hearing voices on our radios that didn't belong on our radios. The terrorists had-- they had captured some of our radios, if you will, from people and they were starting to use our radios to communicate with themselves. And I looked out the front door and I saw a man that didn't belong there starting to come up the steps wearing camouflage fatigues. And I took off running. And one of the guys literally grabbed me and threw me under my desk in my hole. And then everybody got very quiet.
Steve Wysocki was curled into the corner of his cubicle. On the other side of the wall, another American, Gordon Rowan, took shelter in a bare conference room. Intruders searched the building, kicking down doors.
Steve Wysocki: I was laying there trying to be just absolutely as quiet and as still as I could. My greatest fear was that I would sneeze or would move a boot or something like that and make a sound. I heard an exchange which I didn't fully recognize at first. And then, the response to the question was, "My name is Gordon, I'm an American." And I knew Gordon had been captured. And the response from the terrorist was, "You are welcome then." In English. "Now, we've got you now."
"Gordon" was Gordon Rowan, Wysocki and Frazier's boss, and one of the most senior engineers in the gas field. And he was in the hands of the terrorists.
Steve Wysocki: I was wearing my boots, and every time you touch-- seemed like you touched the side of this little compartment I was in, it sounded like a drum, and it scared me that I was just afraid to move.
After two nights in hiding, Wysocki and a few others, made a break for freedom.
Steve Wysocki: And we found that there was a spot in the fence that was damaged that we could go through. We got through the fence and we continued across the open desert.
Charlie Rose: There is this speculation, it's about the plants themselves and the gas that was there, that perhaps the motivation was to go in there and they wanted to know how the process works and how the plants work because they wanted to create a huge explosion to get attention.
Mark Cobb: I don't think they understood technically how the plant -
Charlie Rose: "They" being--
Mark Cobb: --operates.
Charlie Rose: --the terrorists?
Mark Cobb: The terrorists. I don't think they understood technically how the facility operated. But I think they understood enough to know that there was high-pressure gas in there and they put bombs in the right places that they could create what w--
Charlie Rose: A huge explosion.
Mark Cobb: A spectacular, as it's sometimes referred in security parlance, so.
Charlie Rose: Seen around the world from the highest point in the sky?
Mark Cobb: Absolutely.
The plant had shut down at the first sound of trouble. The terrorists apparently unable to restart it. But they did detonate a bomb; a vehicle packed with explosives.
It killed most of them and seven of their hostages including Gordon Rowan.
Two other Americans also died. Fred Buttaccio suffered a fatal heart attack at the start of the four-day siege. Cobb's friend, Victor Lovelady, was killed a day later along with several other hostages. The terrorists were trying to move key hostages from the camp to the plant. Algerian helicopters obliterated the convoy leaving the vehicles in which they were captive charred and twisted. After four days, it was over.
Survivors and friends gathered for Gordon Rowan's funeral a week ago.
Charlie Rose: People died. Friends of yours died, you know. You feel bad but, by the grace of God, there but, you know, why me? How did I survive and someone else didn't?
Mark Cobb: You can't help but ask that question. Why was I able to escape? You know, why was Nick not shot on that bus? I don't know. I don't think any of us know.
Steve Wysocki: When I heard the guys in our building get taken, I'm like, "Why couldn't I have done something to help?" And I'm guilt-- feel guilty for being-- feeling that I was paralyzed with fear and not do anything. But-- and I'm especially guilty because they lost their lives. And I didn't.
Mark Cobb: All of us got quite a bit of time ahead of us to go through this and relive these memories and the nightmares that we have at night and the sleepless nights that we have.
Charlie Rose: Nightmares. Nightmares?
Mark Cobb: Yeah. The nightmares for me are all the same thing. It's the sound of those footsteps as they came down that hallway towards that door.
Charlie Rose: Coming for you?
Mark Cobb: Coming for me.
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