The Cuban detainees who took 136 hostages at two federal prisons last November also held in their hands the fate of the hostages' families.
The emotion that ran through the hostage families as they waited for word about their loved ones was "like the wind blowing across a wheat field," recalls Charles Riggs, chief chaplain for the federal Bureau of Prisons.
From the beginning, federal authorities knew they were going to need reinforcements to help the families face the stress of the crisis and its aftermath. Psychologists and chaplains from other prisons were flown to Oakdale. To help with the effort in Atlanta, the Bureau of Prisons brought in more chaplains, psychologists and Public Health Service officers.
One of the most difficult tasks was to determine who was being held. At Oakdale, the duty rosters had been seized by the Cubans. Prison officials had to spend hours figuring out who was at the prison when it fell. Their job was further complicated by the fact that some officers had been asked to work double shifts and others had come in on their day off because of concern about an uprising.
In Atlanta, similar confusion reigned. It took authorities several days to complete the list of hostages. One was a teacher who gave a course at the prison a couple of days a week. No one remembered that he was at the prison because he didn't work regularly, but he had signed into the prison and never signed out. He was confirmed as a hostage when a guard in a tower saw him being moved through the prison by Cuban inmates.
Meanwhile, the families were congregating, waiting for word. In Oakdale, a family hostage center was set up at the Catholic Hall. In Atlanta, the Bureau of Prisons took over some buildings on the prison ground and rented three trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). At both locations, people in the community donated food and volunteered to help.
Whatever happened, the last thing the families wanted was to go home and wait. "Look, my husband is only 300 yards away from me here and if he dies, at least I will feel like I was that close," one wife of a hostage explained to Dr. Curt Toler, chief psychologist at the Bureau of Prisons.
The short-term plan was to provide briefings, comfort, counseling, financial assistance, food, long-distance phone lines, a day-care center, a place to stay -- in short, anything the families needed to help them cope.
Families were taught what to expect from the hostages upon their release ("They may be on edge, feel sympathetic toward the Cubans and may experience night terrors"). They were coached about what to do ("Listen to what the hostages have to say") and what to avoid ("Don't ask a lot of questions"). A special plan was initiated for "buddy families" -- surrogate families who could meet the 37 unmarried hostages when they were released.
For the long term, an ongoing program of family counseling and self-help groups for the former hostages was designed, which is still operating.
At both facilities, the families yearned for word of their loved ones. But sometimes the news was terrible. When one hostage was stricken with an apparent heart attack at Atlanta, the detainees released him. At the hospital, the former hostage whispered to a friend that the Cubans had 14 hostages chained around some propane tanks with a fuse. They were threatening to light it. The friend returned to the family hostage center in hysterics, fearing that a flick of a match would turn many of the wives she had shared this ordeal with into widows. The dilemma now facing the psychologists and chaplains comforting her: Should they inform the other family members?
"Initially, we were trying to keep this thing quiet," says chief psychologist Toler. "We thought that it would be disruptive." But then Toler and chaplain Riggs decided that it was important to "give people credit for being able to handle bad news," so they told the families about the danger. Timing was also on their side. Shortly after they made the announcement, word came from just-released hostage Dr. Carl Gates that the tanks had been removed and the hostages were O.K.
The wait was particularly agonizing for some families. For three days, officer Webster Chamberlin's family believed that he had perished in a fire at one of the prison dormitories in Oakdale. Then as the crisis wore on, Chamberlin's 17-month-old daughter developed a rare, life-threatening blood condition and had to be flown to New Orleans for special medical treatment. Chamberlin, however, had not signed all the forms for his health insurance before being taken hostage, which meant that his wife and daughter were uncovered. Families in Oakdale pooled their resources and paid for the child's medical care and trip.
One of the darkest moments for the families in Oakdale came when an expected release of the hostages fell through. "As the afternoon began to fade into early evening, the spirits of the family memebrs hit an all-time low," Warden Charles A. Turnbo wrote in a memo to Bureau of Prisons Director J. Michael Quinlin. "The helium-filled balloons sank to the floor, and the family members sat and cried softly. It was without question our most difficult hour."