Image: Freed hostage and military contractors
Jerry Lara  /  San Antonio Express-News via AP
Freed hostage and military contractors, Marc Gonzalves, center with cap, and Thomas Howes in flight suit, right, arrive at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas on Wednesday.
updated 7/3/2008 5:54:54 PM ET 2008-07-03T21:54:54

Three U.S. hostages rescued from leftist guerrillas in Colombia were in good condition, military officials said Thursday.

The military updated reporters Thursday on the condition of contractors Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell. They had been held by rebels since their drug-surveillance plane went down in 2003.

Army Maj. Gen. Keith Huber said the contractors greeted him with "clear eyes and an incredible smile."

The employees of a Northrop Grumman Corp. subsidiary arrived in the U.S. late Wednesday. They were taken to an Army hospital in San Antonio for tests.

Northrop Grumman spokeswoman Katie Lamb said their families were planning to arrive in San Antonio.

The three were rescued when Colombian spies tricked leftist rebels into handing them over along with kidnapped presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. She was also freed Wednesday, as were 11 Colombian police and soldiers.

Howes is a native of Chatham, Mass.; Gonsalves' father lives in Hebron, Conn.; and Stansell's family lives in Miami.

Relief among relatives
Earlier Thursday, Mike Gonsalves said that the news of his brother's rescue was starting to feel more real. "It'll feel me real when I'm able to see my brother," Gonsalves, of Manchester, Conn., told CBS' "Early Show" in a phone interview before going to Texas.

"He looks good," the brother added. "They all look, you know, good for being what they went through — I think they look pretty good."

He said the five years of waiting for news on his brother was hard.

"You just wait and you wait for news," he said. "You wait for a day like yesterday and today, you know, for the end, you. You want it to end."

He said he hasn't been able to talk to his brother. "Today will be the first day," Gonsalves said.

Gonsalves' father, George Gonsalves, was mowing his yard when an excited neighbor relayed the news he had seen on television Wednesday.

"I didn't know how to stop my lawnmower," he said. "I was shocked. I couldn't believe it."

Howes' niece, Amanda Howes, said the rescue "redefines the word miracle."

Stansell's ex-wife, Kelly Coady of Sarasota, Fla., said his two children spent Wednesday packing for a trip to Texas to see their father and waited for hours for a call before Stansell finally called at 3:30 a.m. Thursday.

"He was in a very great state of mind," she said. "He's in a great mood, ready to see his kids."

His daughter, 19-year-old Lauren, and his 16-year-old son Kyle left for Texas on Thursday morning along with Stansell's father and stepmother, Coady said.

Stansell told his son and daughter that he received the radio messages they had sent to him over the years while in the jungle. "He told them that he was proud of them," said Coady. Stansell and his son Kyle "compared their weight and height" during the phone call and made plans for the future.

"They want to go fishing," Coady said.

Hope was failing
Long before their rescue, it seemed that any public efforts to rescue the hostages had disappeared.

While France exhorted the world to care about the plight of Betancourt, who also holds French citizenship, and even sent a humanitarian mission in a failed rescue attempt this year, the U.S. government remained nearly silent about efforts to free the Americans, employees of a Northrop Grumman Corp. subsidiary that has supported Colombia's fight against drugs and rebels.

Their families complained publicly about what seemed to be the U.S. government's failure to act.

"We didn't know what the heck was going on," George Gonsalves told reporters. "I'm getting information from you guys."

The Americans' fate seemed particularly grim after "proof-of-life" images released in November showed them appearing haggard, even haunted, against a deep jungle background.

The contractors and Betancourt were among a group of rebel-designated "political prisoners" whom the FARC planned to release only in exchange for hundreds of imprisoned rebels. But every attempt at talking about a prisoner swap seemed to go nowhere.

Behind the scenes, however, Colombia's armed forces were closing in on the rebels, with the help of billions of dollars in U.S. military support.

Close cooperation
After the men were freed, U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield said U.S. and Colombian forces cooperated closely on the rescue mission, including sharing intelligence, equipment, training advice and operational experience.

The Americans appeared healthy in a video shown on Colombian television, though Brownfield, who met with them at a Colombian military base, said two of the three were suffering from the jungle malady leishmaniasis and "looking forward to modern medical treatment."

Gonsalves' father, who later got a phone call from the FBI confirming his son was free, expected an emotional family reunion, especially for his son's three children, now teenagers. "Think about your children if they don't see you for a week a weekend or a month," he said. "It's five years pulled out of your life."

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Hostages back on U.S. soil


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