A petroleum engineer who felt safe working at the remote outpost in the Sahara, Gordon Lee Rowan, 58, had spent Christmas in California with one of his two sons, and then drove from Sumpter the first week in January to fly out of Boise, Idaho, for another monthlong shift at the gas field, said friends Toni Thompson and Myron Woodley.
"The biggest thing is just the senselessness of it, and the fact he was so close to being able to retire and kind of start his life again," after the death of his wife 3 1/2 years ago, said Thompson, the retired city recorder of Sumpter and a longtime friend of the Rowan family.
"He'd got a new ATV and a snowmobile. He was looking forward to being able to use those in the appropriate seasons. He was getting started again to fish and hunt with his brother (Jerry Rowan of Sumpter). Just looking forward to a lot of things."
The State Department said Rowan was one of three Americans killed in the hostage standoff last week at the Ain Amenas field in the Sahara. An official said Rowan was one of two hostages that militants wanted to exchange for prominent terror suspects jailed in the United States.
Rowan graduated from high school in Ontario, Ore., in 1973, and served in the Army, Thompson said.
He graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1985 with a bachelor of science in petroleum engineering, said spokeswoman Catherine F. Bishop.
He worked on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and the South China Sea as well as Algeria, Thompson and Woodley said.
Woodley said Rowan was involved in fracking old wells at the Sahara site to get more oil and gas out of them.
"He didn't take his retirement like he intended to," said Woodley. "He told them he would come back 'til the end of this year, or 'til he finished that new job he was on."
His wife and mother died within days of each other about 3 ½ years ago, and about a year ago, Rowan moved from Mesa, Ariz., back to Oregon, taking over his family's A-frame cabin in Sumpter, a town of about 200 people in the Elkhorn Mountains, they said. He had put a new roof on it and was remodeling the interior.
A photo on Facebook shows him standing outside the cabin holding a huge icicle.
Sumpter was settled during the Gold Rush in the 1860s. The story goes that it was named for Fort Sumter, S.C., where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, after someone found a rock as round as a cannonball. There is no traffic light. The school shut down long ago and is now used as a community center. There is a motel, three restaurants, and a gas station. Every summer, big flea markets draw thousands of visitors.
When Rowan was home, City Recorder Julie McKinney would know it by the wood smoke curling out of his chimney.
"Everybody knew Gordon," she said.
Rowan would regularly stop by the Miner's Exchange tavern for a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and to talk with longtime friends, said Woodley, who owns the tavern and a gold mine still operating outside town.
"I was all the time telling him, 'You know, that's not good,'" the security situation in Algeria, Woodley said. "He always said, 'No, it's all secure.' That's all he ever said."