Family thankful for driver's escape

Freedom: Weeks after his abduction in Iraq, Thomas Hamill ran from a house where he was being held and was found by U.S. Army troops.

Crisis In Iraq

May 03, 2004|By Patrick J. McDonnell | Patrick J. McDonnell,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Thomas Hamill, an American truck driver kidnapped last month during an insurgent attack on a supply convoy, was found alive yesterday after he apparently escaped from his captors and presented himself to passing Army troops, military officials said.

A U.S. patrol found Hamill - a struggling dairy farmer from Mississippi who came to Iraq to earn money as a civilian contractor - in the city of Balad, north of Baghdad, about 11:15 a.m., officials said.

"He came out of a building and identified himself to American soldiers," said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, chief military spokesman, who pronounced Hamill in good health.

In his home of Macon, Miss., ecstatic celebration broke out at the news that Hamill was safe.

"We're all on cloud nine," said Hamill's mother, Phyllis.

Many viewed the happy news as an answer to their prayers. The town's mayor, Dorothy Baker Hines, said she had spoken with Hamill's wife, Kellie, and conveyed the town's relief.

"I just told her, `Tell Tommy, when you talk to him, that we'll have a parade so long it will never end,'" Hines said.

"I feel wonderful," Kellie Hamill said on radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh, choking back tears. "This is the best feeling I've had. I'm so ecstatic and I just want to thank everybody that has prayed and sent their prayers to us. Thank y'all so very much."

Kidnappers at one point threatened to kill Hamill unless U.S. Marines ended their assault on Fallujah.

He was found at a site about 50 miles from where he was captured, officials said.

Hamill had been seen on two videotapes provided to television networks, the first showing him held captive in the back seat of a sedan as a ski-masked gunman to his right gestured menacingly and another man glared through the car window.

The second tape featured Hamill in front of an Iraqi flag.

The attack that led to Hamill's capture took place on a highway just west of Baghdad on April 9, at a time when a rash of convoy ambushes and kidnappings of Westerners was unnerving occupation forces and the thousands of civilian contract workers who assist the U.S.-led coalition.

A U.S. soldier, Pfc. Keith M. Maupin of Batavia, Ohio, was captured during the same convoy strike that led to Hamill's kidnapping. A videotape of Maupin in custody was also broadcast on television. Officials voiced hope that Maupin was still alive, although there has been no public word on his case.

Another soldier, Sgt. Elmer Krause of Greensboro, N.C., was killed in the same convoy attack. The bodies of four other civilians working on the convoy were later found in a shallow grave near the attack site.

At the time of his capture, Hamill had been working for KBR - formerly known as Kellogg, Brown & Root - a Houston-based firm that is a subsidiary of Halliburton, the oil-services giant.

After his apparent escape, Hamill flagged down a New York Army National Guard unit. "They were approached by a wounded man claiming to be an American," said Maj. Neal E. O'Brien, spokesman for the 1st Infantry Division, which occupies the zone north of Baghdad.

Hamill was receiving medical treatment for undisclosed reasons, but his condition was described as stable. One military official said he had a gunshot wound to his left arm.

Hamill's story had become emblematic of many of the thousands of civilian contractors who have agreed to take risky jobs in the war zone in an effort to improve their financial lot. Truck drivers could earn up to $120,000 a year or more.

There is no official count, but dozens of civilian contractors are believed to have been killed in Iraq. Insurgents view contractors as collaborators in what the armed opposition calls an illegal occupation.

Like Hamill, many civilian contractors were drawn to Iraq by the promise of hefty, tax-free salaries. The U.S. government is pouring billions into the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq.

In Hamill's case, the farmer had struggled to maintain a dairy business that had been in his family in Macon for three decades. But he sought additional income to help his two children and to pay for heart surgery for his wife, friends told reporters.

He eventually sold his cows and the dairy business and signed on last fall to drive a fuel truck in Iraq.

After his rescue, the military said, Hamill led troops to the house where he had been held captive in Balad, northwest of Baghdad. Soldiers searched the area and detained two Iraqi citizens, the military said.

Hamill was then taken to a nearby military base, where he was treated. He was later transported to Baghdad.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The New York Times contributed to this article.

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