March 23, 1998 12:00 PM

On Feb. 11, Paul Hardy, a 32-year-old former jail guard now employed by the Essex County (Mass.) Sheriff’s Department, had just returned to his house in Salem from his morning shift and was looking forward to a quiet afternoon with his twin 4-year-olds, Kevin and Kyle. That was when a masked gunman, who had led police on a 56-mile high-speed chase after allegedly robbing a bank, burst through the back door. As police surrounded the house, the intruder took Hardy and his boys hostage.

The five-hour standoff ended when Hardy wrestled the man—Chad Austin, 24—to the floor, enabling a police SWAT team to swoop in for the arrest. The ending came as no surprise to Hardy’s wife, Gail, 31, manager of a corporate travel agency. “I knew that once the kids were out,” she says, “Paul would get him.” Hailed as a hero, Hardy spoke with correspondent Tom Duffy about the ordeal.

IT WAS AROUND 11:30 A.M., AND I WAS just chilling with the kids, half asleep watching TV, when I heard a couple of bangs. I thought they might have been doing construction next door. Then I heard a real loud bang and glass shattering in the kitchen. And this guy, who’d just shot his way in through the sliding doors, runs into the living room wearing a ski mask and pointing a gun. He’s still looking behind him to see if the cops are chasing him. He turns around and sees me sitting there, groggy. “Get down,” he says. “Get down.”

Until then I was thinking, “This ain’t happening. I must be half asleep.” But then I knew this was a bad guy. I was like, “Oh, my God, this is real.”

I scooped up the twins and did what he said. I asked him if I could put the kids in the corner. “Yeah, that’s okay,” he says. I set them up with a pillow and a blanket, and in a half hour they were sound asleep.

As Austin sat on my sofa, making me sit on the floor in front of him, he started counting the money he had dumped out of two pillowcases. “Look at all this that I’ll never be able to spend,” he says, peeking out the window. “I’m having a really bad day.” I say, “Yeah, mine ain’t much better.”

After about 15 minutes, Austin picked up the cordless phone and called his parents. He left a message on their answering machine. By this point he knew the cops had the house surrounded. “I’m sorry the way things turned out,” he says into the phone. “I really screwed up. I love you both. I’ll see you on the other side.” Then he called his wife. “I did some stupid stuff,” he says. “It’s the end of the road for me. I’m calling to say goodbye.”

The phone started ringing constantly, with friends who’d heard about the situation on TV Then my wife’s dentist called, and Austin took the message. “Your wife has an appointment at 9:30 tomorrow morning,” he told me.

I’d had a few courses in hostage negotiations, and I was thinking about what they taught: Keep hostage takers talking, get personal, make them comfortable. When a news bulletin reported no cops had been killed, I told Austin that no matter how much he had screwed up, his parents and his wife loved him. “And you haven’t killed any cops,” I said. “Those are three good things. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

Then my pager went off, and Austin asked if I wanted to answer it. When I did, my boss said, “Paul, somebody broke into your house.”

“I’m aware of that,” I said. Then my wife called, crying. “The kids are fine,” I said, trying to reassure her. Getting her crazy wasn’t going to help. “I’m fine. Everything’s fine.” I could hear her voice shaking.

Two things came to mind. Either he was going to kill himself or he was going to run into the street and go out in a blaze of glory. “Don’t worry,” he says, “I won’t do anything in front of your kids.” I didn’t feel so sure about that. After all, the guy had just shot his way into my house.

The whole time, I was thinking about my kids. I was focusing on how to solve this problem. Meanwhile, Austin was watching the live coverage. They reported that I worked for the sheriff’s department, and I was worried he might get angrier. I was glad the kids were asleep. I kept thinking, “Daddy’s going to die.” He wanted to know where I kept my gun, and he didn’t believe me when I told him I didn’t keep one in the house because of the kids. He said, “I get chased by the cops going 130 miles per hour and getting shot at. And then, of all the houses, I break into a cop’s house. I can’t believe the day I’m having.”

The police shut off the phone, and Austin was getting agitated. At about 4 p.m., he asked if I’d feel more comfortable with the kids out of the house. I was psyched—and relieved. Very relieved. I got them up and took them to the garage door. Outside, there were dozens of police in SWAT gear behind cars and bushes. At first the boys didn’t want to go. They said, “We want you to come.” Then Kevin ran to the SWAT team. But Kyle turned around and clung to my leg. “Kyle, you’ve got to go,” I said. Finally, I just pushed him out and slammed the door. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

I went back upstairs and sat in the rocking chair next to Austin. That way I could see what he was doing with the gun. I told him, “You can put the gun down now and walk out.” He said there was no way he was going back to jail.

For the next 20 minutes nothing happened. Then I got this burning feeling in my gut. It went up my chest, out my arms and down my legs. My heart was pounding out of my chest. That’s when I knew I was going to do something. “You bust into my house, you put a gun to me and my kids,” I thought. “Enough is enough.”

Not long after, I heard the dog walking on the broken glass in the kitchen. It sounded like someone was coming into the house, and Austin turned his head. “Screw it, now or never,” I thought. And I jumped him and grabbed the gun with two hands. Two rounds went off, one through the couch; the other whizzed by my arm, “I’m going to kill you,” he says. “No, you’re not,” I say. I gave him a head butt and we rolled to the ground. I got the gun, and the magazine fell out. He started biting my hand and arm. Money was flying everywhere. Just as I was tiring, there was a boom and a flash of light as a police stun grenade exploded. I was dazed, but I stumbled to the window and leaped out.

What happened after that, I don’t know. The SWAT team told me to get down, and I did because I didn’t want to get shot by the good guys. They put me in the ambulance and checked me out. After, I made my way through the crowd to my mom, sister and dad. My father nearly broke my back hugging me. Then he broke down and told me he loved me. He doesn’t say that too often. Then I saw the kids and Gail. We hugged each other and sighed.

I’m still getting through the shock of it all. It scared the hell out of me. I’m just a regular guy who was backed into a corner and was able to get my kids out. I want to get back to being Paul. I’ll never look at my kids or my wife the same way again.

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