BERGEN, Norway – After militants stormed his remote desert workplace last week, Liviu Floria, a Romanian gas worker, locked the door and sought refuge under a desk. For five hours, as he stayed hidden, he communicated by text message with a Romanian co-worker in another part of the sprawling In Amenas gas facility.
Then an ominous final message flashed on his cellphone from the colleague. “I am a hostage,” it said.
That colleague would later be found dead, Floria said, along with at least 36 other foreigners whom the Algerian government has identified as victims of the attack. But Floria's story is one of both terror and salvation as he and seven others managed to scale the fence surrounding the compound, trek through the desert and escape death.
Floria saw the attack as it began last Wednesday. He and a colleague, George Iachim, were making their morning coffee when an alarm sounded. They rushed to the window and saw what looked like an action movie unfolding before them. Four men with assault rifles had gotten out of a car and were shooting at the guards at the entrance.
“Out of a peaceful place, a normal place to work, in a few seconds it was transformed into a cemetery,” Iachim later told Romanian television.
After nearly two days of hiding from the hostage takers, Floria and seven others decided their only chance at survival would come from climbing the fence and running away. They left around 2 a.m. for what became a harrowing desert trek, guided only by the flickering flame atop a gas well in the distance and a compass application on Floria's iPhone.
Algerian officials said Tuesday that they were searching the Sahara for five missing foreigners, in the hopes that others might have escaped into the desert as Floria and the others did.
“It's ongoing. They've disappeared,” said a senior Algerian official. “We're not going to just abandon them like that.”
Helge Lund, chief executive of Statoil, the Norwegian company that is one of the operators of the In Amenas plant, said Monday in a televised news conference that 12 of Statoil's 17 employees had returned home, while “extensive searches in and around the plant at In Amenas and at hospitals in Algeria are taking place” for the other five. It was unclear whether the Algerians were referring to the Norwegians, who as of late Tuesday were still classified as missing rather than dead.
Floria recounted his experiences from back home in Romania on Tuesday. He was clearly still shaken by the experience and traumatized about the deaths of his colleagues, including two Romanians, and on Monday he had gone to a monastery to pray.
Floria, 45, said that he was no wildcat cowboy, no thrill seeker or adventurer, just a hardworking man hoping to provide a better life for his family. He had been employed in the oil and gas industry in Pitesti, Romania, for nearly 20 years when he was contacted through the job-networking website LinkedIn by an international recruiting agency.
The new job in Algeria as a mechanical foreman paid five times as much as he was making in Romania, where the industry was struggling and the future looked uncertain. Floria hoped that with the money he earned, he could send his teenage daughter to Britain for college and eventually buy himself a little house in the mountains. Safety was not a concern, he said.
He began work in Algeria in 2010 and before long was used to the routine, one month in the Sahara working 12-hour days and one month back home.
The night before the attack, Floria went to bed early. It was a decision he said might have saved his life. He woke up early, at 5:15 a.m., and he and Iachim drove in a Toyota Land Cruiser from the living area to the central processing facility a few miles away. They drove through the very gate that the militants would storm minutes later.
The two Romanians stayed all day and all night in the office, trying to keep quiet, subsisting on water and a few cookies they had with them. Long periods of silence were interrupted by minutes of gunfire and explosions. Floria tried to suppress his emotions and remain focused on staying alive.
“In my mind, the fate was we should escape from here,” Floria said. “I must stay calm, manage my feelings and we see what happens next.”
On Thursday afternoon, after more than 24 hours in hiding, they heard someone calling: “Anybody here? Anybody here?”
It was Lou Fear, one of the Britons.
“When we heard his voice, we were very happy,” Floria said, relieved to have been found by others who had eluded capture.
Soon a group of eight had gathered. There were two Norwegians, three Britons, an Algerian and the two Romanians. Word had spread that the attackers were targeting only expatriates and letting Algerians go, but the lone Algerian stayed with them, risking his life to help his co-workers, Floria said.
Someone in the group saw the attackers returning, and everyone went back into hiding. But that night Fear came back and told them there was talk of trying to escape.
“Sooner or later they will discover us, and they will kill us,” Floria said. “All of us agreed. It's our chance. We should fight for our lives.”
They were terrified of discovery. One of the would-be escapees knocked over something metal, and in the dead silence of the desert at night it rang as loud as a bell. Everyone froze and waited, but no one discovered them.
The fence, which Floria estimated was more than 6 feet tall, built to protect them from the outside world, was now an impediment. But they managed to squeeze between the razor wire and the top of the fence, Floria said.
They were elated but wary when they made it out of the facility, knowing they were nowhere close to safe. If the attackers found them they would most likely be shot.
The group walked toward the beacon of burning gas in the distance, but when dawn came they could no longer see the flame. In their haste to escape several of the men, including Floria, had not thought about supplies, and the group had only four bottles of water for the eight of them.
Fortunately, the iPhone app worked without a cellular signal. They walked over barren terrain of sand and rocks and small hills, from about 2 a.m. until the late afternoon with only short breaks.
At last they found the gas well. There was a temporary building there, and at least one of the men was struggling to go on. Four of the men stayed and the other four continued to a nearby road. They saw vehicles but feared they might be the assailants.
They waited and watched from a distance. A white car with a green crescent looked like an official Algerian vehicle. They went to the road, stopped the car and felt incredible relief to find three Algerian security officers inside. The officers took the men and gave them cookies, orange juice and apples. Floria said the Algerians did not pick up the remaining four people despite repeated pleas. Floria's group was flown out of Algeria on a U.S. military transport plane. The other four made it to the road once the sun had set, Floria learned later, and also escaped safely.
“I got pain in my bones, but this was nothing for me,” Floria said, contrasting his fate with the dozens who did not make it out alive. “We escaped.”