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Would-Be Hostages Learn the Ropes

In a post-9/11 world, government officials and business people are taught how to avoid, and survive, an abduction.

October 09, 2005|Nicholas K. Geranios | Associated Press Writer

SPOKANE, Wash. — I put my head down, took off my watch and pulled out my wallet, all under orders from the hooded guy carrying a pistol. Then I made a big mistake: raising my hand when the intruders asked who was an American.

I figured they'd find out when they looked in my wallet. But experts say that during the crucial opening minutes of a hostage crisis, the worst thing to do is draw attention to yourself.

"We recommend you don't lie, but don't volunteer to highlight yourself in a stressful moment," said Randy Spivey, director of the National Hostage Survival Training Center, a private business that teaches people in government and the private sector how to avoid or survive abductions.

The better action, experts say, would have been to keep my hand down. If challenged later by the abductors, I could tell them I was too confused or scared to respond to their question, Spivey said.

Thus a hostage perhaps can buy time during the chaotic early minutes of an abduction, the most dangerous time for a captive because the captors are also under stress, Spivey said.

The training center is located in Spokane because nearby Fairchild Air Force Base is the home of the Air Force Survival School, which trains downed pilots to elude captors, Spivey said.

"Spokane is the national leader in captivity training," said Spivey, a Department of Defense hostage expert who created the center in 2004.

Working from a downtown office, Spivey and his partners run daylong seminars for clients who pay $650 to learn how to avoid being captured -- and, if captured, what mental tools are needed to survive.

Spivey's clients have included members of Congress, the Justice and State departments, other government agencies and numerous businesses.

This day, his eight clients include a travel agent from Seattle, a safety manager for Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., an accountant, a woman who provides security for entertainers and four business executives.

In the middle of an early discussion, three men in black masks burst into the conference room and began yelling orders. The minute-long disruption provided Spivey with a wealth of teaching material.

Kidnappers in the business for money would look at a person's wallet, watch and jewelry to determine if he or she is wealthy enough to pay a big ransom, Spivey said. Many business people carry company identification in their wallets, another source of ransom, Spivey said.

Leave expensive jewelry at home when traveling in a foreign country, and empty your wallet of unneeded information that might help a kidnapper, he said.

On an airliner, the best place to sit is a window seat in the back, the place where a passenger is most likely to be far removed from hijackers, he said.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, popularized the notion that airline passengers should aggressively fight hijackers, but Spivey said passengers should carefully weigh the situation before taking action.

If the pilots remain at the controls, or if the plane is flying over the ocean, it's not likely that the plane is about to be crashed into a building, he said. But "if the bad guys are flying over a city, it's probably best to attack," Spivey said.

If you're walking down a city street, the best thing to do to avoid an abduction or attack is to face oncoming traffic, staying on the inside of the sidewalk. Be aware of your surroundings: Try to notice if a person or vehicle is shadowing you.

Following these steps is more likely to make you a "hard" target rather than a "soft" one, and might scare off criminals looking for someone to mug, he said.

That is easier said than done.

In the second exercise, our group walked five blocks to a Starbucks and back, trying to spot training center employees who were shadowing us.

Was it the guy in the black trench coat? The guy in the loud golf shirt and khaki cap? The dude lounging at the bus stop?

It turned out my group of three would have been a soft target. We spotted trench coat guy, but everyone does. We missed the fellow up in the skywalks taking pictures of us. We missed the woman sitting alone in Starbucks, and the two men in casual clothes who followed us.

"Nobody gets them all," Spivey said.

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