TODAY   |  December 21, 2012

Engel and team: ‘We weren’t expecting a rescue’

TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie sat down with NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel and his crew, who were abducted and held captive for five days in Syria. The team discusses being ambushed at gunpoint and what raced through their minds in the following days.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> we are learning more about the har owing ordeal faced by richard engel and his crew. we sat down with richard , cameraman john boistra and the rest of the crew last night. i started asking richard about the moment their car was ambushed at gun point.

>> when i saw this truck parked and we were going into that truck, i thought this is a problem.

>> there was no doubt we knew what was going on and we knew it was bad news.

>> five days in captivity. show of hands . who at this time thought this is it?

>> every day. every day. it's part of breaking you down. they don't want you to be strong. they want you to be docile. they would blindfold you. you don't really know what's going on. they would take you outside forcefully. everybody up, outside. they would line you up against a wall. you hear weapons loading and unloading. you hear plastic wrap on a tarp set out in front of you. you think, this is it. then they leave you there for 30 minutes and just let the moment play out.

>> every one of these men who never broke.

>> what, to you, does it mean to break in a situation like this?

>> you start confessing on each other. you start telling, save me instead of t versus the others. you start crying. they wanted to create divisions and play games all the time. we had to keep our own games going and not let them break us down.

>> there was a time when they forced you to make a video. how did that feel?

>> that was actually reassuring. okay. at least they're not going to kill us now. we're really hostages.

>> were there real moments of hopelessness, despair?

>> there was. the day of my wife's birthday, december 17th , i started thinking about my family. i was thinking our families have no idea what's going on. they think we're probably getting tortured now and i started crying. i didn't want the guys to hear me cry because i didn't want them to know -- i didn't want to bring down their spirits.

>> were you angry?

>> yeah.

>> oh, yeah.

>> what made me even more angry is that you can't show it. one time they would be nice, bringing us food and tea and a few minutes later, they're making us choose owhich one of us is going to be executed.

>> pretending we are one family.

>> we're one family, we're all here together. let's just get this over with and then, then they put a gun to your head.

>> you say that so quickly. but let's just stop there for a moment. you had a gun put to your head.

>> twice.

>> twice.

>> within the first 20 minutes or so.

>> i'm pretending not to speak arabic. guarding secrets is very important.

>> you pretended not to speak arabic why? you wanted to listen to them and not have them know or you're trained to hold a secret?

>> yes. they didn't know who we were.

>> they didn't know.

>> one of you did have a secret that would have been devastating, had they know.

>> yes.

>> amar, you are syrian.

>> yes i am.

>> you are a defective soldier?

>> exactly.

>> you have an uncle who is quite high in command in the syrian army .

>> yes.

>> had they known that, what would have happened ?

>> they would have executed me. i started to pretend i was speaking very bad arabic. i was always like, can you repeat, please? i can't understand you. please speak with me slowly. and it worked for five days.

>> the acting job of your life.

>> yes.

>> he had to fool fellow countrymen that he didn't speak the language well and he pulled it off.

>> he was awesome.

>> tell me how you felt when it was over.

>> we weren't expecting, obviously, a rescue. the rebels knew we were in the area. they had been alerted by nbc. they had been alerted by other friendly forces who had told the rebels you've got people in your neighborhood. increase your security. go find these people. that pressure inspired our kidnappers to move us to a safer place, deeper into their territory. and if we had gotten to that territory, that's good b-bye. you wouldn't see us for a long time or ever again. we're driving along these back roads, all in the same van. we have a gunman in the front driving, gunman riding shotgun and four gunmen in a chase car behind us.

>> we were going down the road. all of a sudden our driver said checkpoint, checkpoint. it freaked him out. i knew that was our time.

>> the gunmen in our car get out and are killed.

>> just like --

>> precision shots, killed. no shots even hit our car. ta's dark. it's rainy. headlights shining. the rebels advance on to the car and free us. we figure out who they are. they figure out who we are. we tried to thank them. this is a very religious group . they refused to accept any thank s. they said this is god. we just happen to be here.

>> all of you are very experienced. and i know you love this work that you do. is there anything about this experience, though, that makes you think, i don't want to ever step foot in a place like that again?

>> i'm going to cover the story.

>> it's not going to change what i've been doing with my life, what is my life.

>> you would all go back as journalists and cover this story again?

>> absolutely.

>> not tonight. but right after the holidays, yeah. absolutely.

>> so you know, they are getting some much deserved rest now. they saw their families last night. they're in wonderful spirits. it was so good to see them. and it's just an amazing thing.

>> what's remarkable to me, they're all so experienced and you hear richard , his experience in the territory. yet that stuff can happen that you cannot anticipate. and even with the experience, you try to process the potential end of your life is remarkable.

>> it came through there, but the truth is, they saved their own lives in many ways by keeping their cool.

>> right.

>> and they really leaned on each other.

>> that's what's so surprising, you really see the camaraderie, out in this field test your metal in that situation. boy, what an amazing story.

>> they were saying there were moments when they would lay down and just literally hold on to each other.