Rescue surprises American families after years of little progress or news

For the families of three American defense contractors held hostage for five years by Colombian guerrillas, the release of their loved ones came as an unexpected and welcome surprise.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have been holding them since February 2003, refusing to negotiate their release unless top Colombian rebels imprisoned in the United States were freed.

Northrop Grumman, the employer of the three hostages, had kept the families updated but there was little official news from the Colombian or U.S. governments. Then big news came Wednesday via unofficial channels.

George Gonsalves, father of hostage Marc Gonsalves, was mowing the lawn in Hebron, Conn., when a neighbor rushed over with the news. When McClatchy reached him by phone, he was in a state of pleasant shock, thrilled at the just-received news but still wanting to hear it from someone more official.

“Quite honestly I haven't heard more than what I've seen” on television, he said, adding that his son had three teenage children who would be overjoyed with the news.

Amanda Howes was at work at Boston TV station WHGH when she saw a news flash that her uncle Thomas Howes was rescued in Colombia. She quickly called her father Stephen Howes, and unsuccessfully tried to reach her uncle's wife, Mariana, by cell phone. The hostage's wife was in Peru visiting family and could not be reached immediately with the news.

“It's a miracle today,” said Amanda Howes.

Once former hostage Howes speaks to his family, he'll learn the news that his father, Edward Grafton, passed away on March 26, 2007 while the U.S. contractor was being held in a jungle hell.

“My grandfather passed away about a year ago. That was very traumatic, we were trying to get the message to him, and there was really no way to get the message to him,” Howes' niece said.

Karen Howes, a sister-in-law to the hostage, was overjoyed when getting the news in Chatham, Mass.

“I'm really happy for him. I have prayed for him, every night for him, to come home,” she said.

The family of the third American, Floridian Keith Stansell, did not return calls for comment. He was two months from being married when he was taken prisoner, and his fiancee has since married, according to reports earlier this year in the Bradenton Herald and Miami Herald. His son from a previous marriage, Kyle, went from being in elementary school to a 15-year-old high school student during Stansell's absence. His daughter Lauren, 19, has graduated from high school.