Survival Options:
Hostage Taking

Survival options for hostages include the three basic types: Pawn, Ransom, and Slave. Hostage survivors almost always say, "I never thought it would happen to me!" The following insights - beforehand - will give future hostages an edge - and time and time again, the slightest edge makes all the difference in survival.

Four men responded to Jack and Barb's ad selling a used car at their home. They paid $16,000 cash and left with the car. Two of the men returned after dark with masks and a gun. Barb phoned 911 but the gunman stopped her before she could speak. Suspecting domestic abuse, police sent a patrol car.

Then Jack grabbed the gunman's arm and yelled, "Run, Barb! Run!" She ran out and into a ravine to hide behind trees. Now the gunman ordered, "Get your wife back up here or I'll kill you!" "Barb!" Jack called into the dark. But Barb was smart. She stayed hidden as the second man began searching the brush. Just then the police arrived and the masked men fled.

"Jack's giving me the chance to get into the woods saved us," Barb said later. "No," Jack said, "it was you staying there."

Jack and Barb's ordeal shows the danger of doing cash deals at home. It's safer to meet a buyer at a bank and deposit the money immediately. But it was valiant teamwork that saved them. Jack's bravery allowed Barb to escape. He then became the sole hostage but Barb was too smart to become a "slave."

Types of Hostage Taking:
PAWN, RANSOM, and SLAVE

A hostage-taker wants to gain: safe escape, ransom, robbery, political terrorism, or to act out sexual fantasies and sadism.

Hostages can include bystanders who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. These might be anything from customers in a retail store robbery or acquaintances of a stalking victim, to passengers on a hijacked aircraft – such as the passengers of United Airlines Flight #93 on September 11, 2001. The hijackers had really wanted only a fuel-laden airborne aircraft to destroy a building. But the aircraft also contained passengers – and they ended up thwarting the hijacker's goal.

The hijackers flew the plane low to avoid radar, but the low altitude allowed the passengers to use cell phones to call loved ones and learn of other hijacked aircraft already exploded into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Realizing their captor's survival reassurances were lies, heroic hostages charged and overwhelmed the hijackers, causing the plane to crash into an empty Shanksville PA field rather than a likely target in Washington DC.

Prior to September 11, hijacked airplane passengers usually were simply rerouted to another destination as a political maneuver and eventually released unharmed. But the world changed forever that day and all Americans learned a searing survival lesson: do not automatically cooperate with hostage-takers.

Passengers on an October 8, 2001 American Airlines flight from Los Angeles subdued a deranged man trying to storm the cockpit. Then on December 22, 2001 passengers on American Airlines Flight #63 from Paris to Miami helped stop Richard Reid - an Islamic fundamentalist from the UK - trying to ignite explosives hidden in his shoe. Clearly, security has become everyone's business.

Use a seat cushion as a shield or wrap a jacket around your arm and hand to deflect a hijacker's sharp-edged weapon. You will lose if you merely defend for survival – attack him! Less able passengers can throw food trays or liquids to distract the hijackers while the more able passengers attack with anything from ballpoint pens for stabbing to briefcases for clubbing. (See Improvised Weapons.) Never again will today's passengers trade a mere chance for survival by riding obediently to their destruction.

Hostage/Pawn Survival Options

After years of a turbulent marriage, Karen left Dan and moved in with her parents. Dan packed a pistol under his shirt and went to demand she return. Dan fired a shot into the ceiling to back off her angry father, and the mother bolted outdoors to call the cops. Without initially intending to, Dan became a hostage-taker. After six hours, Dan’s adrenaline faded and the SWAT team persuaded him to surrender peacefully.

Hostage/Pawn captors, the most common hostage-takers, use a captive as a bargaining chip to negotiate demands. They usually have at best only a vague plan or most often no plan at all to escape from a predicament that has escalated beyond their control. Almost always, they’re either arrested or shot down.

Mentally unbalanced and unpredictable, a hostage/pawn captor may be a psychotic, a disgruntled employee at a workplace, the especially dangerous suicidal individual who commits “suicide by cop” (forcing a cop to kill him), or a jilted romantic partner. Other types include terrorists with political goals, or criminals in a robbery gone awry.

Police SWAT teams rely on the hostage’s calm patience to help slowly wear down their captor to surrender harmlessly. If your escape is impossible, try to befriend your captor to prevent him from depersonalizing and harming you. Just be wary of the “Stockholm Syndrome” wherein hostages go too far with their sympathies, become psychologically disoriented, and actually aid their captors as allies. Instead, fake an alliance with the captors but always look for surviaval strategies to sabotage their plans and to stealthily cooperate with the police expert survival SWAT teams.

Indianapolis Police Captain Robert Snow, author of Protecting Your Life, Home, and Property, wrote that most hostage-takers realize that harming hostages is not in their own best survival interests. Still, especially during the first few hours, a hostage shouldn’t speak unless spoken to, shouldn’t argue with or criticize the captor, and simply obey.

Stay away from doors and windows through which the police may enter or shoot. If the police storm in with bullets flying, unsure of who’s who – captor or captive – don't grab a weapon to try to help the police. They must reflexively shoot anyone with a weapon. A hostage's best chance for survival is to lie flat on the floor and staying there.

Experts disagree over the wisdom of hostage/pawns risking an escape attempt or waiting for the police to free them. The hostage’s survival choice must be based upon each unique situation, but some ominous signs are: he depersonalizes you by not talking to you or calling you by name, he seems irrational, or he talks of suicide. (Suicide threats are especially dangerous – how can you bargain your survival with someone who’s got nothing left to lose?)

Hostage/pawn captors are usually life’s losers desperately trying to achieve bargaining power with a strategy that almost always fails. In all for survival: you should remain calm, cooperate, show compassion and respect to the captor, and don’t lose faith that the police will rescue you.

Hostage/Ransom Survival Options

Thinking 7 year-old Erica Pratt's family had ready cash, two men snatched her from a street near her Philadelphia home in July 2002. Locking her in the basement of an abandoned house, they demanded ransom from her family.

Within hours, though, Erica gnawed through her bindings, kicked through a door panel, broke an outside window to call for help, and was freed with the help of kids nearby.

In the U.S., the majority of ransom kidnappings end with the victim safe and the kidnapper arrested or shot. Outside the U.S., most victims are safely released, but most kidnappers escape with the ransom.

As a result, ransom kidnappings flourish in 24 foreign countries where political turmoil, poverty, and underpaid, and in some cases, corrupt police become confederates of the kidnappers. Foreign kidnapper’s range from inept to expert. The amateurs may get the ransom, kill the hostage, and disappear. The professionals keep the hostage alive in order to gain trust for future kidnappings.

To avoid ransom kidnapping in foreign countries, follow the safety tips in Home Security, Outdoor Safety, Car Security, and Travel Security. If you're hiring household help, check references thoroughly and keep your assets and schedules as secret as possible. Oftentimes, kidnappers will threaten household employees’ relatives to gain cooperation in kidnapping the employers.

Usually, the hostage’s location is unknown to the police, so a police SWAT team probably won’t be aiding your survival. Nonetheless, follow the same advice for hostage/pawns: obey, befriend, and remain hopeful.

“Express” Kidnappers grab victims from homes, cars, or the street, take them to ATM bank-withdrawal sites or make ransom demands of relatives – then release the hostages within hours, usually with minimal injuries. Rampant in 24 undeveloped or troubled countries, express kidnappings are becoming increasingly common in the U.S.

Hostage/Slave Survival Options

Cary Stayner was watching 42-year-old Carole Sund, her daughter Juli, 15, and a friend, Silvina Pelosso, 16, through an open curtain. They were staying at a lodge near Yosemite National Park. He saw "easy prey" to fulfill a sexual fantasy.

He knocked on their door and identified himself as the handyman coming to fix a leak. The mother, suspicious, told him through the locked door there was no sign of a leak. He insisted until she finally peeked out, saw his toolbox, and let him in. He disappeared into the bathroom and quickly reappeared with a gun pointed at the mother and ordered the girls to bind her and each other with his duct tape.

The mother was his hostage and the girls were his slaves. He raped and murdered all three. He really was the lodge’s handyman. He was also an evil killer.

In another case, a woman was walking on a street with her husband when a frenzied man suddenly grabbed her from behind. She fought until she saw her husband, frozen, staring wide-eyed at her throat – and realized the stranger was pressing a knife to it. The stranger hissed, “Money!” They handed over wallet and purse and the mugger ran off. She’d suddenly become a hostage and her husband a slave to the knife at her throat.

Hostage/slave captors threaten one victim in order to dominate multiple victims. His slaves obey his commands – such as binding each other – then all become his hostages. As long as all the victims obey, he has total control. However, even one victim disrupting his plan may well benefit the others' survival.

The stronger the emotional bonds between hostages, the stronger the captor's power over them. The hostages may be strangers, coworkers, neighbors, friends, lovers, spouses, or relatives. Strangers might take the first survival opportunity to escape and summon the police. But a parent would probably never leave a child, nor a husband leave his wife with a knife held to her throat. Thus, the captor has absolute power.

Also see Hostage Survival & Escape.

Personal Safety Devices

Deter a predator by holding Pepper Spray & a Personal Security Alarm (noisemaker or screamer) in plain sight. Those pages describe how to use them most effectively.


Crime-Safety-Security > Survival Options Overview > Hostage-Taking