A north-east oil worker who was trapped for more than 24 hours at an under-siege gas plant, last night told of his dramatic escape.
Alan Wright was working at the In Amenas compound, deep in the Algerian desert, when it was stormed by Islamist terrorists last week.
The 37-year-old was eventually able to break out through a hole in a fence, while gunfire rang out around him.
Yesterday, he was back home in Portsoy with wife Karlyn and daughters Imogen, four, and 18-month-old Esme.
Speaking from the family home in Seafield Terrace, Mr Wright told the Press and Journal it was a bitter-sweet reunion, with fears for colleagues that were left behind. “Obviously, I’m delighted to be home with my family,” he said. “But right now, my thoughts are with the friends and relatives of those who were killed or who are still unaccounted for.
“It’s awful to think that these could be some of the same men I was playing football with on Tuesday.”
Mr Wright, who has worked at the remote gas installation for two years, said he first sensed trouble when he woke on Wednesday morning.
“It was about 6am and all the power had gone out and alarms were going off,” he said. “This happens sometimes, so we didn’t think too much of it.”
He went with three workmates to a muster point, but there was nobody else there.
“We went back to our offices and an Algerian national employee told us there had been a terrorist attack. You see things like this happening on the news, but I never in a million years thought this could happen to me,” he said.
Mr Wright, a health and safety adviser for BP, holed up with other workers inside a locked office. They taped paper to the windows so no one could see inside.
“It’s a big base and we were away from where the terrorists had come in,” he said. “We just sat tight. We were there for between 24 and 25 hours.”
The office building had a supply of food and water, as well as toilets. The men took a satellite phone into the room with them, while Mr Wright was able to send messages to his wife using his mobile phone.
“There was gunfire outside, sometimes intense, and then at times quiet and we sat for three-and-a-half hours. Other colleagues told us the terrorists wore either military uniform, or were dressed as gendarmes (Algerian police), so we would not know who was friend or foe.”
At 9.30am, someone entered the building and said “good morning” in Arabic. “He said it very politely and we were sure that was a terrorist trying to entice people out, so we didn’t move.
“That was the first moment when we thought we are in big trouble here,” he said. “He just walked past and assumed the building had been emptied.”
By 6pm, they left the office for another room. When it became clear the terrorists were only interested in keeping international workers as hostages, the ex-pats in the group became increasingly concerned that the Algerian nationals would leave them and inadvertently betray their position.
During the night, Mr Wright phoned home and told his wife he was safe – although he knew he was still in grave danger.
He said he didn’t want to speak to his daughters because he didn’t want his last conversation with them to be on a crackly phone – or a lie about him being OK.
The workers agreed they would make a bid for freedom at first light on Wednesday morning. They cut through a perimeter fence just 20 yards from their hiding place.
“I had made up my mind to stay put, but when I heard the first twang of the wire being cut I was like a rabbit out of a trap.
“The first cut of the fence, the wire and tension makes such a noise when it breaks and you knew it travelled to where the terrorists were,” he said.
He said: “It was like the Great Escape. There was about 30 of us and we all climbed through the fence and into the desert as gunfire chattered behind us.
“Once we were outside, we saw a group of armed men approaching. We didn’t know who they were, we thought they might be the terrorists, disguised as soldiers. We were there for about 10 minutes,” he said. “That was the most terrifying time.”
Finally, one of the group recognised two of the men as Algerian soldiers. The military had arrived to try and reclaim the base from terrorists. Mr Wright used the satellite phone to call his wife to say he was safe.
The men were taken to a military base before being flown to Palma, then to London where Mr Wright was questioned by FBI officers about American workers at the facility.
Mr Wright said last night: “It’s a bittersweet reunion for me, because I think about those left behind. But there is no doubt more would have died if the Algerians had not come to rescue us.”