Hostage Negotiators Share Experiences Of Life & Death Situations

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They are most volatile situations that can happen on the streets - hostage barricades, standoffs with police, and threats of suicide.  

Some of the nation’s top hostage negotiators are in Columbus sharing their experiences and lessons learned - including an officer who tried to negotiate the safety of four firefighters held hostage at gunpoint.

During a crisis, the negotiators are sealed in the command post.  The primary negotiator's job is to listen. A secondary negotiator is also listening, taking notes, and they have the primary's back.

“People think they're negotiators because they're talking, when in reality it's all about listening,” said Sgt. Rich Weiner, Columbus Police Department.

The job was never more crucial than in April 2013 near Atlanta, Georgia, when a gunman in financial distress took four firefighters hostage. 

“It was euphoric.  It was surreal.  Everything was slow, and you're just trying to digest everything that is happening,” said hostage survivor, Tim Hollingsworth.

Corporal John Rowell was the crisis negotiator who tried to reason with the hostage taker.

“I would characterize his whole demeanor as condescending. Everything they teach you in hostage negotiation 101 didn't work with this guy,” said Rowell.

It became clear the gunman did not want to negotiate.

“He almost hung up on me every time I asked for a hostage.  He was irritated with me when I would say we gave you this, why don't you let one guy go?”

Inside the house, the firefighters say they were doing their best to play good cop.

“He would get mad.  We'd talk him down.  They'd call back again.   He'd get mad.  We talked him down,” added Hollingsworth.

One hour into the standoff, the gunman demanded boarding up the doors and windows. 

“And I knew at that point my job was to just stall,” explained Rowell.

Four hours into the standoff, tactical officers launched a rescue mission. 

“I was actually on the phone when the charge went off talking with the suspect and so the phone went dead immediately,” said Rowell.

The suspect shot an officer before he was shot and killed by police.  All four firefighters survived, marred only by the memories of a close call. 

“Some days are better than others.  It's not like you're going to forget.”

The negotiators have a motto - time is on our side. 

Negotiators say their job isn't only to save hostages; a mission is truly successful when the bad guy comes out with his hands up.