Three Statoil employees who survived a terrorist attack on an Algerian gas plant in January finally told their dramatic stories this week, on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) and in other media. Many questions remain, as Statoil’s own investigation into the attack continues.
Bjarne Våge of Sandnes and Thure Ingebrigtsen of Bergen were already on the job at the In Amenas gas plant when it was attacked in the early morning hours of January 16 by a large group of Islamic terrorists. Kolbjørn Kirkebø, also of Bergen, was riding on a bus into the nearby town to get his visa renewed when the bus also was attacked outside the plant. All three men, caught in different portions of what they viewed as a well-planned assault, thought they would surely be killed.
They portrayed a remarkable sense of calm, though, as they recounted their harrowing experiences which were broadcast on both NRK’s nightly national news program Dagsrevy and later in a special program on NRK2. All are still working for Statoil’s Algerian operation, but now from offices in London. They said it was “too early” to say whether they’ll return to the plant in the desert of southeastern Algeria that Statoil has operated along with BP of the UK and Sonatrach of Algeria.
They contended that Statoil had not prevented them from speaking out sooner. Rather, they claimed, they needed time to digest what had happened, deal with the aftermath of the attacks and, not least, attend the funerals of colleagues killed in the attacks. Of the 40 foreign employees killed at the gas plant, five were Statoil workers and three of them had just started their early morning shift with Bjarne Våge when alarms started ringing and four terrorists stormed into their office.
“We could only see their eyes, otherwise they were completed covered with robes and scarves,” Våge told NRK. “They were carrying Kalashnikovs, they yelled that we were their hostages. We knew this was serious.” What immediately followed were hours of terror, as Våge and his three Norwegian colleagues Tore Bech, Hans Bjone and Thomas Snekkevik were ordered to the floor, bound with plastic strips, kicked in punishment if they moved or spoke, and eventually led to a truck and driven to another location at the plant.
Våge, age 58, had already decided he’d try to escape, claiming he’d rather die trying than die as a hostage. He got lucky when he realized one of the terrorists had made a mistake in binding the strips around his wrists and that they had loosened. When ordered to the floor once again inside the gas plant, he grabbed his chance and ran. One of the terrorists ran after him, yelling (in English) “Stop, you know I’ll kill you!” and Våge expected to be shot in the back. He wasn’t, though, “maybe because the terrorist was afraid of hitting gas plant equipment that could explode.” Våge, his hands free, dodged through the tanks and pipes, made it outside and to the fence around the plant, got over it and maneuvered under the barbed wire atop it, breaking a rib in the process. He ran into the desert where he was eventually rescued by Algerian soldiers. He later found out his three colleagues had been killed.
“It plagues me that I couldn’t do anything to help the others,” Våge said, claiming that any communication among them was “effectively interruped” by the terrorists. His colleagues’ deaths “mean that I can’t manage to feel much joy over surviving myself.” He said he’s spoken with the family of Thomas Snekkevik, though, and that they supported his decision to flee. Våge is convinced that if he hadn’t run, he would have been killed, too.
Barricaded in an office
Ingebrigtsen, age 57, was also caught in the attack along with colleagues and they all barricaded themselves in a small office at the plant, managing to fend off the terrorists who repeatedly tried to shoot their way in or break down the door. It held, though, and Ingebrigtsen and his colleagues had also blockaded it with furniture on their side. When the terrorists finally seemed to give up, after nearly two days, the workers decided to flee themselves with only crackers and water bottles in their backpacks.They ventured outdoors, got over the fence and set off over the sand dunes surrounding the plant, only to find that the going was tough and the route much longer than expected. They also ran low of water and were frustrated when whirling helicopters overhead failed to spot them. They finally made it to a road, were picked up by patrols and taken to a field hospital.
Kirkebø, age 50, also eventually was taken to a field hospital after being wounded in the leg during the attack on his bus that lasted for several hours. He had little if any chance of escape, he said, as the shooting between guards on the bus and terrorists outside in the dark went on for hours. As he and the other 12 passengers on the bus lay on the floor he was sure they’d all be killed. Amidst the chaos, though, he told NRK that he was comforted by realizing that he’d written his will and that insurance would help his wife back home in Norway. “Everyone on the bus was calm, there was no panic,” Kirkebø said.
The shooting subsided, only to fire up again, but finally the attack ended and an Algerian soldier came on board to help them all out and to the hospital. From there, Kirkebø could eventually call his wife in Bergen and let her know he had survived.
Had felt safe
All three men told NRK and other Norwegian media on Thursday that they had always felt safe at the heavily guarded gas plant, and that none could have imagined such an attack could occur. “We were out in the middle of the desert, security around the plant was tight, there were thousands of soldiers stationed all around us,” Våge told NRK. Kirkebø agreed: “An attack like we experienced, I never envisioned anything like it.”
Now they hope that telling their stories will help them move forward. Statoil is conducting its own probe into security at the plant and how the attack could have occurred, even though the Algerians were and are ultimately responsible for the safety of workers there. It remains unclear exactly how the five Statoil workers died, whether they were killed by the terrorists or in the Algerian military’s counter-attack that liberated the seized plant.
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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