Thomas R. Hargrove trudged into his house in suburban Cali, Colombia, on Tuesday night and announced to his stunned family that leftist guerrillas had released him after 11 months of terror and captivity in the mountains nearby.
Susan Hargrove, his wife, was on the telephone when her disheveled husband walked into the house. The couple's two college-age sons also were there. It was the sweetest of moments for a family that had endured month after month of tense cloak-and-dagger negotiations to secure Hargrove's release.
"I just dropped the phone and started screaming," Susan Hargrove said. "Then, everyone started screaming."
Hargrove, 51, a Texas native, described his trip home as a mere walk.
"All I did was walk in here," he said in a telephone interview from Cali. "I walked . . . through the mountains for two days. I had a marching song in my mind. I just repeated the cadence over and over.
"Every step is closer to Susan. Every step is closer to home. Every step is closer to Susan. Every step is closer to home."
Hargrove was one of five U.S. citizens held captive in a country that has converted kidnapping into a cottage industry. Suzanne Lawrence, a spokeswoman at the State Department, said the remaining four victims are missionaries.
Hargrove, an agricultural journalist with a humanitarian spirit, was kidnapped last Sept. 23 as he drove to work at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture near Cali. He was manager of the organization's communications division, which was responsible for writing farm manuals. A faction of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, claimed responsibility.
Hargrove described his guards as young, uneducated Indian peasants who had been recruited by the group, one of several Marxist revolutionary groups operating in Colombia.
This summer a Colombian military intelligence agency estimated that revolutionaries and/or common criminals -- some say they are one and the same -- were holding 87 foreign hostages in Colombia.
Hargrove said his kidnappers often kept him shackled in a windowless hut with no light. They sometimes pointed their rifles at him and threatened to kill him, he said.
His meals usually consisted of beans and rice. Occasionally, he got beef when his captors found a cow to slaughter.
"I didn't think I was gonna make it," he said.
Then came freedom.
"I don't know," Hargrove responded when asked why he was released. "I'm not a very religious person, but I thank God. I am lucky to be alive."
Hargrove said he and six armed rebel soldiers set out on foot Monday morning and walked down a mountain toward Cali. By Tuesday morning, he said, his captors felt they were getting too close to areas controlled by the Colombian armed forces. They pointed in the direction of a nearby town and disappeared.
Hargrove said he made it to the town by Tuesday afternoon. People there recognized him from newspaper reports and gave him a ride to his doorstep near Cali.
After the kidnapping, Hargrove's employer issued a statement saying it would not negotiate or pay ransom for his release.
But Susan Hargrove took a different view. Her sons left their respective colleges, Texas Christian University and Texas A&M, to be with their mother in Colombia.
They decided to negotiate.
In Colombia, Susan Hargrove said, the kidnap negotiation process is formalized. When it becomes clear that the Colombian government cannot help secure a release, the family is allowed to petition for permission to negotiate.
Communicating over secret radio frequencies, Susan Hargrove said she and the guerrillas agreed upon a price for her husband's release. She declined to reveal the price. She said she and her sons delivered the money to the kidnappers early this summer, but nothing happened. "We took to our beds for days after that, we were so depressed," she said.
Throughout the year, the Hargroves also attempted to pressure the rebels by suggesting that kidnappings are inhumane and are an unacceptable political tactic. They hoped the pressure would appeal to the humanitarian side of intellectual rebel supporters in the arts and university communities.
In the end, the couple said they did not know why the rebels chose this week to release him. They could only speculate the heightened army activity around Cali made it logistically difficult for the guerrillas to release him any earlier. CAPTION: Journalist Thomas Hargrove, center, with sons Miles, left, and Jerry, walked some of Colombia's most rugged terrain.