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He cried down the phone to wife: I'm free

Published 18/01/2013

THE family of a west Belfast man held hostage in Algeria have described their joy at his release.

Relatives of Stephen McFaul were celebrating yesterday after learning that he had made it to safety, almost 36 hours after Islamic militants invaded a compound where he was working and held him and dozens of others captive.

His mother Marie and father Chris learned of the terrifying events when they answered the phone at their home at Sawel Hill in Andersonstown at 5am on Wednesday.

Stephen (36), who now lives in Antrim, is a father-of-two and an electrician by trade.

He was working as a supervisor at the In Amenas gas field for energy giant BP in the north African country.

He initially made contact with his family to tell them he was hiding at the compound after it had been attacked by terrorists.

Brian McFaul said his brother had been at workers' living quarters making out the morning rotas when it was targeted.

"They sent the first bus out to the gas field and when they were heading out the door al-Qaida came in and took out the first bus," he said.

"There were two killed in it and the security guard was killed. He was armed.

"After that they were aware terrorists were taking over the camp.

"So Stephen, along with a local guy and a Scottish fella, went into hiding. They hid in one of the rooms. They locked themselves in the room.

"At that stage my other brother was talking to him on the phone. He was able to talk to us because we told him to switch his phone on to silent and stick to text messages because he was telling us 'Look, they're firing here. I have to keep the noise down. They're outside'."

Stephen was later discovered and taken hostage.

However, Brian said Stephen remained "quite calm".

"I think he was more worried about his family, what we were going through," he said.

Marie McFaul said her son later told her on the phone that "they were taken hostage by al-Qaida and they wanted us to get in touch with the Irish government - they wanted the publicity and they wanted the Algerians out of the camp".

She said that during the call they asked her son whether he was speaking freely or from a script.

"He said no, they were talking freely. The guy was standing beside him with a gun but they were talking freely," she said.

The mother-of-five said she prayed constantly for Stephen's safe return as reports of killings emerged.

Then shortly before 3pm yesterday the family received the news that he was safe.

He is said to have been "crying down the phone to his wife - 'I'm free'."

Stephen was taken to a camp for a debriefing as details of how exactly he came to safety were yet to emerge.

There were scenes of jubilation in Andersonstown as news of his freedom reached his parents, who hugged each other and his eldest son Dylan (13).

Marie said they then "ran up and down the street telling everybody - 'He's free'."

She said she felt "elated".

"You couldn't describe how it is," she said.

However, speaking after Stephen's release but before the Algerian special forces' operation had finished, she ex pressed sympathy for other families who did not yet know whether their loved ones were safe.

Marie described the experience as "unreal".

"We haven't slept," she said.

"It's a nightmare. You get all these ideas in your head and then you try and put them out and you think, 'No, that'll not happen. That couldn't happen'."

Dylan choked back tears as he said he would give his dad a "big hug" as soon as he sees him.

"Just can't wait to see him," he said.

"I really can't explain it."

News of Stephen's release quickly spread around west Belfast and was welcomed throughout the community.

Sinn Fein MP Paul Maskey, who has been assisting McFaul family, described it as "brilliant news".

Fiona Kane, acting principal of La Salle College, which Stephen attended and where his son Dylan is a pupil, said everyone at the school was "delighted". ■ JOY: Stephen McFaul's mother Marie and son Dylan yesterday evening after learning of his release