W&M graduate has been a real life saver

Mike Holtzman, President of BLJ Worldwide, an international public relations firm, and a business partner of Peter Brown, the Beatles’ former manager, recently made news.

According to a recent report by Politico, the Washington insider’s bible, Holtzman saved a suicidal man who jumped onto the tracks at Penn Station in New York City. Holtzman, using his iPhone, signaled the train’s driver to stop while speaking to the suicidal man, a Hindu, in his native language. He told him, “You are loved,” and persuaded him to extend his arms so he could be hoisted up onto the platform.

“He did it all in a Zegna suit,” the report noted.

Holtzman is a College of William and Mary graduate who, until last year, served as a member of the Advisory Board of the Reves Center for International Studies. He was also at the helm of Colonial Williamsburg’s communications operations for a colorful stint.

His life-saving effort in New York City brought back memories of another event he was involved in: The rescue of James Foley, an American journalist captured by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi during the Libyan civil war in 2011.

According to official reports, Foley and American journalist Clare Morgana Gillis, and Spanish photographer Manuel Brabo, were attacked and captured by Gaddafi forces near Brega, Libya. A fellow photojournalist, Anton Hammeri, traveling separately, was shot and killed.

Later, Foley said, “Once I saw Anton lying there dead, it was like everything had changed. The whole world had changed. I don’t even know that I felt some of the blows.”

Gillis had this to say: “We all glanced down at the body of Hammeri as we were being taken by, and I saw him just lying in a pool of blood. And then we were put into a truck and our heads were pushed down. We weren’t able to see anything what happened after that to him.”

Foley, Gillis and Brabo were imprisoned and tortured. After 44 days in captivity, Foley, Gillis, Brado and Nigel Chandler, an English journalist, were brought to the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli and released.

In 2014, Foley was beheaded while working in Syria by the Islamic terrorist organization ISIS. At the time, NBC News reported that Holtzman had been a key figure in securing Foley’s earlier release from Libyan captivity. Holtzman, who had worked on back-channel diplomacy with the Qaddafi government prior to the uprising, knew some of Qaddafi’s closest aides personally.

Holtzman has never spoken about his role in public. Not even to confirm the NBC story.

So, I asked Holtzman how he managed to secure Foley’s and the other journalists’ release.

“I reached out to Abdullah Al Sennousi, Qaddafi’s intelligence chief,” he said in an interview with the Gazette. “He wasn’t in a terribly good mood. He felt the Americans had betrayed him. But he had the keys to release the journalists and ultimately agreed to.

“I think we need to appreciate the monumental risk that journalists take in giving us the news and information we need to be an informed citizenry.”

After his release from Libya, Foley returned for a short visit with his family in Milwaukee. But his experience in captivity did not deter him from returning to Libya, and he was present at the capture and execution of Muammar Gaddafi.

He continued working as a freelancer for GlobalPost and other media outlets during the Syrian Civil War. While departing an internet cafe in northwestern Syria in November 2012, he was kidnapped by an organized gang, believed to have been the Shabila militia.

During negotiations for his release, Foley’s captors demanded €100 million — $132 million — in ransom. On Aug. 19., 2014, ISIS uploaded a video on YouTube showing Foley kneeling in the desert next to a masked, black-clad ISIS terrorist. Later, his beheaded corpse is shown.

Holtzman, who has worked in the dark corners of the world — in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Russia, Venezuela and elsewhere — as a private advisor to governments and prominent figures was at a loss.

He could not save Foley’s life again.

Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” a compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.

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