The Rotary Club of Richmond Hill honored Veterans Day at its weekly meeting Thursday in the Richmond Hill City Center by hosting guest speaker and veteran Keith Stansell.
Stansell, a former Marine who lives in Bradenton, Fla., is one of the authors of “Out of Captivity: Surviving 1,967 Days in the Colombian Jungle,” a true story about his capture in Columbia on Feb. 13, 2003, by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Stansell was working as an anti-narcotics contractor and was mid-flight when his plane experienced an engine failure over a mountain range.
Stansell and his fellow authors, Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes, were held in captivity for five and a half years and would go on to become three of the longsest-held hostages in American history, he said.
He described for Rotarians some of the experience, but noted there was not enough time to encompass much detail. He first described the crash landing of the plane, saying it “opened like a tuna can” upon impact, and also how he was shocked that he and several others survived.
“I still don’t know how we did it,” he said of landing the plane. “We came to a stop 15 feet from a 400-foot drop.”
After realizing he was alive and had all of his body parts, he said he checked on the other men that were in the plane. All had major injuries but were happy to be alive. He also recalled the smell of the FARC guerrillas.
“Humans have a smell in the jungle,” he said, noting the large group of soldiers that were about to capture them made the distinct smell more intense.
Stansell and the other men were then captured and separated by the FARC guerrillas. He elaborated on his capture and said he remembered a young girl who gave them fresh lemonade and one guerrilla who wanted his wristwatch.
He described his trek through the jungle as a “24-day death march” and recalled not eating for nearly 12 days and being so fatigued that if he came to a stop for even a minute, he would fall asleep.
Stansell said he and 15 other hostages, including his fellow Americans and Columbian police officers, were rescued in July 2008 during an undercover operation that went so smoothly not one single shot was fired.
“It has to go down as one of the greatest rescues in modern history,” he said.