Small town waits for word on kidnap victim

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

MACON, Miss. -- In his hometown in eastern Mississippi, Thomas Hamill is known as a good guy -- a family man with two children who took a job driving trucks in Iraq to make ends meet after his dairy farm took a hit.

On Monday, American flags went up on the main street in this small town as a gesture of support for the civilian who was taken hostage in Iraq. Several hundred friends and neighbors gathered for a vigil Sunday night, and Mayor Dorothy Baker Hines said the town would keep the lights on all night at some buildings as a reminder.

"We will keep going until we get our guy out, all our guys and girls out," she said. "It's gotten too close to home."

Hamill, 43, was snatched Friday by gunmen who attacked a fuel convoy he was guarding, one of a string of kidnappings of foreigners by Iraqi insurgents. On Monday, officials in Iraq said six other workers for the same company, Houston-based Kellogg, Brown & Root, also were missing. The company is a division of Halliburton.

Hamill's captors had threatened to kill him unless U.S. troops ended their assault on the city of Fallujah. A deadline imposed by his abductors came and went Sunday morning with no word of his fate.

"I'm just praying," said his grandmother, Vera Hamill.

Many at Sunday night's vigil wore yellow ribbons and scrawled notes of support for his family.

"This is a small town. It hits us hard. God bless him, he's just trying to make a living for his family," said longtime resident Marion Gilbertson. Hamill and his wife, Kellie, have a son, around 13, and a daughter, around 11, Hines said.

The show of support at the vigil was a great help to Kellie Hamill, a 911 operator in Macon who is recovering from recent open-heart surgery, the mayor said.

"Her spirits were lifted from what she heard about the prayer vigil," said Hines, who attended the vigil. "I told her if there was anything she needed, to let the community know. She told me we just need to pray for her and that's what we're doing."

James Jones, who went to high school with Hamill, said financial concerns prompted his friend to go to Iraq. The pay for experienced private workers in dangerous places like Iraq can be up to $1,000 a day, according to Peter W. Singer, author of "Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry."

A Halliburton official left Hamill's house Sunday evening without commenting.

On Monday, spokeswoman Wendy Hall said the company is "anxious but prayerful that our colleague Tommy Hamill will be returned safely."

She said the news of the additional missing workers was "a grueling and difficult development, and we are working diligently to assist the families and the military in any way we can." The company did not release the names of the other six.

In a videotape of Hamill, broadcast Saturday on the Arab TV station Al-Jazeera, his expression was calm but wary. A voice-over read by an Al-Jazeera announcer quoted Hamill as saying he was being treated well.

"I am in good shape," the voice-over quoted him as saying. "I hope to return home one day, and I want my family to know that these people are taking care of me, and provide me with food, water and a place to sleep."

Hamill was in Lamar White's country store two weeks ago when he was home on emergency because of his wife's surgery.

"He said it wasn't bad over there once you got used to it," White said. "He said it just takes a while to get adjusted but when you do it's all right."

On Monday, Kevin Mitchener was busy putting up American flags.

"We've got about 25 flags and we're putting them all up this morning," he said as he stood beside his power company truck. "It's the least we can do to be patriotic at a time like this and hope he'll be all right and get back home."

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