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US executive held by Chinese workers felt like 'animal in a zoo'

After almost a week of being held captive in his company's manufacturing plant in China, Chip Starnes, president of Specialty Medical Supplies, is back on American soil. He speaks out about his ordeal to TODAY's Savannah Guthrie.

Chip Starnes, the medical supply company executive detained by his own employees in China, said Thursday night that he "felt like an animal in a zoo" for the six days he was held captive before the workers and the company reached a compensation agreement.

Starnes, 42, chief executive of Specialty Medical Supplies, arrived late Thursday at the Newark, N.J., airport after fleeing the Beijing-area factory in a spy movie escape. Despite his ordeal, he told CNBC in an interview at the airport that he would be back at work Friday and fully intended to return to China.

"Going back to China is a must," Starnes said as he awaited a connecting flight that would take him home to Coral Springs, Fla. "We've got millions of dollars of equipment there. We've got a large investment there, so we've got to see it through."

Starnes' wife, Cecily, told NBC Miami: "I'm so relieved, so happy. Just to get him out of there is so wonderful. It's a load off our shoulders."

Cecily Starnes said her husband told her that he was spirited away to a waiting car as a news conference announcing the agreement was being held next door. He said he switched cars twice, picked up his clothes at his hotel and headed straight for the airport.

In text messages to CNBC before he left China on Thursday morning, Starnes said he'd fled because he feared for his safety after a vendor threatened him.

Specialty Medical Supplies CEO Chip Starnes, arrived Thursday night at Newark International Airport in New Jersey, where he was interviewed by CNBC

"I freaked out," Starnes wrote, but not before he texted that the "deal was done & all employees were paid," confirming a statement by the Huairou District Labor Union, which called the results "satisfactory."

The union said 97 workers at the plant in Huairou, a suburb of Beijing, signed the agreement.

Workers at the plant had stopped their boss from leaving the building since Friday, although Starnes said he had tried several times.

"Sometimes, it's like it's a movie," Starnes told NBC's TODAY on Wednesday. "It's surreal. But it's real. It's something I really have to hit head-on and address."

Starnes has said the dispute was over the company's plans to move part of its Chinese operation to India, resulting in about 35 layoffs. After the laid-off employees were offered a severance package, other workers demanded similar deals — even though they were still employed.

Starnes said the workers were also angry over false rumors that he planned to close the Huairou plant.

It's not unusual for Chinese workers to hold their managers captive to win back pay or other benefits. Police are reluctant to intervene, as they consider it a business dispute. The Huairou workers said they hadn't been paid in two months, an allegation Starnes has denied.

Starnes told CNBC that he would soon meet with his shareholders "to figure out how to make this work." But first, he said, he wanted to see his children and stop by "a little pizza place I love" back home.

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