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The Rescue of Jessica Buchanan

An American aid worker's first interview about being kidnapped and held for ransom by Somali pirates in a 93-day ordeal
The Rescue of Jessica Buchanan 15:47

The following script is from "The Rescue of Jessica Buchanan" which aired on May 12, 2013. Scott Pelley is the correspondent. Robert Anderson is the producer.

Tonight, for the first time, we have the story of the rescue of Jessica Buchanan. It is the tale of a secret mission by SEAL Team Six that few people have heard about until now. On a January night in 2012, members of SEAL Team Six jumped from a plane into the skies of Somalia. Jessica Buchanan was being held hostage and the SEALs were descending just in time. Buchanan was a humanitarian aid worker who had come to help children in one of the most dangerous places on Earth. Hers was an ordeal that ended in a flash of violence. but had begun 93 days earlier when her car was stopped by bandits in a place she calls hell.

Jessica Buchanan: We stopped, very abruptly like so abruptly that I felt like everybody just fall forward and then I started to hear all of this pounding on the windows and the windshield and shouting in Somali and there is a man standing there screaming with an AK-47 and he's shouting and pointing it at us and then he climbs into the car next to me and points an AK into my face and they're hyped up like they're on speed and all of the sudden we just take off. The driver just takes off and we just start slamming down these camel tracks.

Scott Pelley: What did you think they were going to do?

Jessica Buchanan: I figured they were going to rape me. And then kill me. And I just keep thinking, "This can't be the end. This can't be the end of my life. I'm only 32 years old. I haven't had any children yet." I didn't get to say goodbye to Erik. I didn't get to say goodbye to my dad. Like, this can't be the end.

Jessica Buchanan was facing the end at the end of the Earth. Somalia, on the farthest tip of Africa, is war torn and lawless.

[Scott Pelley: This is essentially No Man's Land.]

Militias battle over an unforgiving land as we saw while covering a famine there in 2011. It was the same year that Buchanan was with a Danish charity teaching children how to avoid landmines. On October 25th, her car was hijacked.

Jessica Buchanan: The driver is driving just like a madman, we are bouncing all over the place, my head keeps hitting the window, it keeps hitting the roof I'm holding on to the side, the handle on the Land Cruiser just trying to keep myself steady.

Scott Pelley: What happened next?

Jessica Buchanan: It gets dark and we've changed vehicles a couple of times more people have come. They're screaming. And I hear from behind me a higher pitched voice going on and on in Somali. And I think, "My god, they have a woman involved in this." And I turn around, and I see a small child in the back of the land cruiser with an AK-47 draped in ammunition. And I think the irony of why I came to Africa in the first place.

Scott Pelley: Exactly the kid you were trying to save?

Jessica Buchanan: Yeah.

Scott Pelley: A child soldier?

Jessica Buchanan: Yeah.

Scott Pelley: What was he doing?

Jessica Buchanan: Learning the trade.

She'd been kidnapped along with a coworker, Poul Thisted. They drove into the night and then were ordered to march into the desert.

Jessica Buchanan: And they tell us to get down on to our knees and I think this is it and I'm bracing myself to be shot in the back of the head. And I think that there's mercy in the fact that maybe they're not going to rape me first, but that it's just going to be quick. And I'm waiting and I'm waiting, and then all of a sudden, somebody shouts from behind us, "Sleep." And I'm thinking, "Oh my god, I didn't hear that correctly, did I? He just said, 'Sleep'?"

She collapsed, slept through the night and the next morning was met by the man who led the bandits.

Jessica Buchanan: And we ask him, "Are you going to kill us? Is that why we're here?" He says, "No, no, no. Money. We just want money."

Scott Pelley: How much were they asking for?

Jessica Buchanan: They started out at $45 million.

Scott Pelley: They thought you were pretty valuable.

Jessica Buchanan: I guess so.

The bandits used her cell phone to call her husband Erik Landemalm. The two had married on an African beach two years before. But his number and the numbers of Buchanan's family had all been disconnected. It was part of the charity's emergency plan. The one number that worked was her Nairobi office with a hostage negotiator standing by. And so began months of talks.

Scott Pelley: Where did they keep you, day in, day out?

Jessica Buchanan: Under trees. And outside.

Scott Pelley: You were outdoors for 93 days?

Jessica Buchanan: Yep. And at the night, they forced us to sleep out in the open.

Scott Pelley: What were the nights like?

Jessica Buchanan: Long and cold. Then the rainy season hit, and it would rain all night long. And you're already freezing. So, then you're sitting there wet.

Scott Pelley: What were you eating?

Jessica Buchanan: Tuna fish. Maybe once a day. We would get a small can of tuna fish and a piece of bread.

Scott Pelley: Did you feel like you were beginning to lose your humanity at any point?

Jessica Buchanan: Yeah I mean they treated us like animals. To be so sick that, you know, you're vomiting behind bushes. And you can't walk straight, and you're laying in the fetal position on the ground under a tree. And they don't even, they don't care. Their duty was to keep me from dying because then I wasn't worth anything.

They were in the hands of men and boys chewing khat. It has the same effect as amphetamines.

Jessica Buchanan: They were so hyped up on speed. It was like drinking pot after pot of coffee. And then, the crash would come. And then, it brought a lot of belligerence, and a lot of anger. And a lot of temper.

Scott Pelley: You and Poul came up with nicknames for a lot of the people who were keeping you. It's one of the ways you kept yourself occupied--

Jessica Buchanan: We did.

Scott Pelley: The 10-year-old boy?

Jessica Buchanan: Crack baby. 'Cause he was cracked out all the time. He was chewing khat and he had two blacks holes for eyes. There was nothing inside.

This is one of the camps where she was held. The bandits hit her, pointed their guns at her and put a knife to her throat. But it was exposure that took a toll. She lost 25 pounds. After three weeks the bandits made a video to prove that she was alive.

Scott Pelley: Have you seen the video?

Jessica Buchanan: I have. I can tell I'm starting to lose hope at that point.

But hope would have to last for two more months.

Scott Pelley: As the many weeks went by, did you think the American government is watching me? They know where I am and somebody's gonna get me outta here?

Jessica Buchanan: No.

Scott Pelley: Why?

Jessica Buchanan: Because I'm just an aid worker.

Scott Pelley: You didn't imagine that the president of the United States knew your name?

Jessica Buchanan: Never. Never in a million years.

After three months in the desert, Buchanan had a serious urinary tract infection and in a final call to the hostage negotiator she said this.

Jessica Buchanan: I'd become so ill that I couldn't stand up. I couldn't walk. I was in so much pain. And I said, "I think I have a kidney infection." And I started to cry, and I said, "I think, I'm afraid I'm going to die out here.

When that call was received here in Nairobi it set off a chain of events that led all the way to the Oval Office. The FBI and the military consulted doctors who said that if Jessica had a kidney infection, she might have just two weeks to live. That was transmitted to the president, who was also informed that in just a few days there would be a new moon--perfect darkness for a SEAL team rescue.

Jessica Buchanan had chosen a star in the Somali sky to represent her mother who had passed away a year before. She spoke to it every night and, with no moon, it was especially bright on January 25th.

Scott Pelley: What did you say that night?

Jessica Buchanan: Please tell God that I need some help. We need to get out of here.

Scott Pelley: You couldn't have known that that prayer would be answered that night?

Jessica Buchanan: I had no idea.

She was on a mat, trying to sleep when she heard a faint scratching noise. One of the bandits she nicknamed "Helper" heard it too.

Jessica Buchanan: And then I see this look of just sheer terror on Helper's face. And then all of the sudden it's just this eruption of gunfire. And I think, "OK, well this is it. This really is truly the end." And I cover up with my blanket again, and I just start saying, "Oh god, oh god, oh god." And I just remember thinking, or maybe I'm saying out loud, like, "I cannot survive this."

She thought she was being taken by a rival group, maybe al Shabaab the Islamic extremists who would surely kill her.

Jessica Buchanan: And then all of the sudden, I feel all these hands on me. Roughly grabbing at me. And I try to protect myself, and I pull the blanket closer on top of me. And then I hear my name. But it's not a Somali accent, it's an American accent. And I can't compute. Like I can't understand that somebody with an American accent knows my name. And they say, "Jessica we're with the American military. We're here to take you home, and you're safe." I pull the blanket down from my face and all I see is black. Black masks, black sky and all I can say over and over is, "You're American? You're Americans? I don't understand, you're American." Thinking, how did you get here? And I'm still alive, and they ask me where my shoes are and I don't know. And one of them picked me up and starts running. He runs for several minutes and puts me down on the ground. And I'm still asking who these Americans are? I don't understand who they are and I don't understand what they've done. And then they identify themselves, and that they knew I was very sick. And they have medicine and they have water, they have food. And they've come to take me home. At one point I think they thought they heard something. I don't know this group of men who's risked their life for me already asks me to lie down on the ground because they're concerned that there might be someone out there. And then they make a circle around me. And then they lie down on top of me. To protect me. And we lay like that until the helicopters come in.

Scott Pelley: When all of those SEALs laid down on top of you, you were the most important thing in the world for them?

Jessica Buchanan: It's really hard to comprehend.

Scott Pelley: They were gonna take a bullet for you?

Jessica Buchanan: Uh huh (affirm). And they are so kind and so gentle. And they are trying to assist me to get the the helicopter, but I think I've been out here for months, I can run to this helicopter myself. And so I just break away and I just take off running through the scrub, through the bush, and I throw myself onto that helicopter and push myself up against the wall. And I don't start breathing until we actually lift up off the ground.

Jessica Buchanan: And they hand me an American flag that's folded.

Scott Pelley: What did you think of that?

Jessica Buchanan: I just started to cry. At that point in time I have never in my life been so proud and so very happy to be an American.

The SEALs left on other helicopters. She didn't see their faces, didn't hear their names. They appeared and they were gone. The only thing left in the camp were nine dead bandits.

It all ended just hours before the State of the Union address. As the president walked in he had a secret with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that almost no one understood until later.

[Obama: Good job, good job tonight.]

After the speech, President Obama called Buchanan's father. Jessica met her husband Erik at a U.S. base in Italy.

Jessica Buchanan: I just couldn't believe he was standing there and that I was standing there. And we had-- we had a second chance. And then, later we flew to Portland, Oregon. And I was reunited with my father and my brother and my sister and her husband.

Scott Pelley: What was the first thing you said to your father?

Jessica Buchanan: "Daddy I'm, I'm so sorry that you had to go through this, but we made it."

So did her Danish co-worker Poul Thisted who was also rescued by the SEALs. He said later, that his lucky break was being captured with an American. Jessica Buchanan has told her story in a new book "Impossible Odds" coming out this week. You may recall that she said that her first thought when she was taken was that she was too young to die because she hadn't had children. Well, she's taken care of that too. She and her husband have a baby boy and they've moved back to the states from East Africa.

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