The Attack on Al Rasheed: A Reporter's Account

By Donna Miles

American Forces Press Service
 
WASHINGTON, Oct. 27, 2003 -- I had just brushed my teeth
and was wetting down my hair to make it look halfway
presentable for a 6:30 a.m. working breakfast when I heard
the first "boom" at the Al Rasheed Hotel in central
Baghdad.
 
It was just after 6 a.m. on Oct. 26, the fourth and final
day of my trip with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul
Wolfowitz, who was traveling throughout Iraq to assess
progress in the country's move toward stability and
democracy.
 
This trip represented a lot of "firsts" for me. It was my
first as an American Forces Press Service reporter covering
a major Defense Department official. It was my first
experience traveling with the Pentagon press corps — a
highly experienced group that I admired tremendously and
fretted that I might not be able to keep pace with. It was
my first trip to Iraq since I'd covered the Kurdish relief
effort in the northwestern tip of the country in 1991
following Operation Desert Storm.
 
And as it turned out, it also was my first time to
experience being in a hotel hit by a rocket attack.
 
Throughout the trip, I'd heard a lot about the massive
piles of munitions being discovered by U.S. and coalition
troops or turned in by the Iraqi people. Several members of
our group had watched an explosive ordnance disposal unit
detonate a massive pile of unexploded ordnance the day
before, resulting in a huge, black mushroom cloud that
could be seen for miles away. I learned these detonations
have become everyday occurrences throughout the country, so
I didn't think much of that first boom.
 
Then a second boom followed — this one louder than the
first. It seemed awfully early for troops to be destroying
explosives, especially in the heart of Baghdad. The two
other women I was sharing a room with, a Reuters
correspondent and a Defense Department press escort,
exchanged confused looks that said, "What was that?"
 
Then we heard another, even louder boom — this one making
the floor of our 12th-floor hotel room shake. Something was
wrong.
 
Our press escort, Air Force Master Sgt. Rebecca Alexander,
made a telephone call, then told us to get dressed quickly.
If something was wrong, she told us, someone from security
would be on the way.
 
We quickly threw on our clothes and grabbed essentials — in
my case, my reporter's notebook, camera, tape recorder and
wedding ring. I abandoned my suitcase, laptop computer,
cosmetic bag and 25-year-old, comfortable-as-slippers Army
boots.
 
An alarm went off outside our door, and we hurried into the
hallway, which was filled with smoke. Another boom sounded.
Someone pointed us toward the far end of the hallway, and
we moved out at a brisk pace. Nobody seemed to be panicked.
 
We hit the stairwell, filled with much more smoke, and
followed the procession downward, one floor at a time.
Remembering things I'd read about evacuations, I pulled
part of my shirt up over my nose to keep out some of the
smoke.
 
Thoughts of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on New York's World
Trade Center filled my head. Why did we have to be staying
on the 12th floor? I watched the red numbers at each
stairwell landing that marked progress out of the building
– 11, 10, 9 and so on.
 
Blood on the stairway somewhere around the sixth or seventh
floor suddenly made everything seem even more serious. I
don't remember hearing more impact explosions. Maybe we
were insulated from them inside the stairway. Maybe the
shelling was over. Maybe my mind was just blocking them
out.
 
We finally reached the stairway's bottom, which opened into
a glass lobby. It didn't seem like a very good place to
congregate during an attack. Somebody told us not to go
outside — that it might put us at even more danger.
 
I watched someone help a man toward the door, his arm
bleeding heavily. Someone with a megaphone told the group
to move back, leaving room for medics to hurry toward the
door with a litter carrying someone who had been injured —
then a second litter, then a third.
 
The eight reporters traveling with the deputy secretary
sprung into action. Some used cell phones to try to contact
their bureaus. Some pulled out notepads. Our TV crew
started running tape. I spun into action photographing
people congregating in the lobby.
 
We heard a lot of stories. Some people had seen shattered
glass, doors blown off their hinges, water pouring from the
ceiling. One group member had gotten drenched as he stopped
to help someone who'd been wounded, assuring him that
everything would be all right.
 
Someone in authority told us to move again, this time to a
small courtyard away from all the glass. We stood waiting
for further directions, wondering if the shelling was over.
 
We were told to move yet again, being directed outside the
hotel, past the elaborate fountain at its entrance and
across the street to the Baghdad Convention Center.
 
Sirens started blaring, and medical evacuation helicopters
were flying overhead.
 
As we stood in line waiting to show our credentials and get
our bags searched to get into the convention center, a man
walked around offering us doughnuts and fruit juice. I
heard someone say he'd gotten them from the cafeteria at
the Al Rasheed Hotel. A doughnut never tasted so good.
 
Inside the center, the reporters hurried toward the "C-PIC"
— the Coalition Press Information Center. We watched the TV
monitors reporting the attack and awaited a statement we
were told Wolfowitz was about to make.
 
I admit was a bit surprised. I'd wondered, while waiting in
line to get into the convention center, if his security
detail hadn't already whisked him off to the airport and
put him on a flight out of the country.
 
Like us, the deputy secretary had been staying on the 12th
floor of the hotel. One reporter in our group said he'd
seen him in the hallway unhurt, and commented to him about
this being a heck of a wakeup call.
 
At the press center, I hurried to the phone, and amazingly
got an immediate dial tone. I awakened my husband in the
middle of the night to relay what had happened and that I
was fine. Then I called my boss at the American Forces
Press Service with the same information – and that I would
file a story on the attack as soon as I could.
 
During his brief press statement, Wolfowitz — who looked
amazingly composed in light of what had just happened —
told reporters that "this terrorist act will not deter us
from completing our mission."
 
After the press conference, reporters hurried to the press
center to file their stories. With my laptop computer back
at the hotel, U.S. Army Master Sgt. John Hodges from the
319th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment graciously offered
use of his. I wrote my story faster than ever before,
because any moment we might be pulled away.
 
Surely, I thought, security would cut Wolfowitz's schedule
short. I couldn't imagine that he'd continue the pace he'd
followed for the past two days, moving from town to town,
meeting with one group after another, allowing himself to
be so exposed.
 
I was wrong. When the deputy secretary said the United
States and the coalition will not be deterred, he meant it.
While we were filing our stories, he was already back on
schedule, meeting with representatives of the Baghdad
Citizens Advisory Councils, Iraq's first step toward
representative government.
 
>From there, we followed him through the same fast-paced
itinerary he'd followed since we set foot in Iraq. We
traveled with him to the Baghdad al-Jazeeda Police Station
to hear about progress in recruiting and training the new
Iraqi police force — and the need for more resources to
reach the goal of 75,000 police nationwide, 12,000 of them
in Baghdad.
 
>From there, it was on to the 1st Armored Division
headquarters, where we saw the launching device, disguised
as a generator trailer, used in the morning's attack. We
followed Wolfowitz on a mounted, then dismounted, patrol of
the area with the 2nd Brigade Reconnaissance Troop —
something I'd also been convinced would be cut from the
schedule due to the morning's events.
 
Next was an unscheduled visit to the 28th Combat Support
Hospital, where Wolfowitz visited the five people
critically injured in the attack: one Army colonel, three
U.S. government civilians and a British government worker.
The press was barred from the visits, but afterward, the
deputy secretary called their courage and commitment
"extraordinary" and said how proud they all told them they
are of what they are helping accomplish in Iraq.
 
>From there, reporters went back to the press center to file
stories. Wolfowitz remained on-task, getting briefings,
wrapping up meetings, doing an interview with an Arab
television station.
 
At 9:45 p.m., almost 16 hours after the attack and about
three hours later than originally scheduled, Wolfowitz and
his group were "wheels–up" at Baghdad International
Airport, on an Air Force C-17 transport for the return to
Andrews Air Force Base, Md.
 
A few hours airborne, Wolfowitz talked with the press about
his impressions of the four days in Iraq. What stood out
the most for him, he told us, wasn't the attack; rather, it
was the heroism he'd witnessed throughout the trip among
U.S. and coalition forces and the Iraqis he'd met.
 
He said he was particularly inspired by the bravery of the
people he'd visited at the hospital earlier in the day.
"They were risking their lives and proud of what they are
doing," he said. "They know what the mission is about. They
know they are helping to build a new country. They know
they are helping to make the world and America safer."
 
I've heard him say many times that the United States and
coalition must not be deterred by "bitter-enders" who think
that their random acts of violence will "scare us away."
 
But the deputy secretary's actions on Oct. 26 demonstrated
to me that he's personally not about to be scared away by
terrorists, either. His refusal to allow the attack on the
Al Rasheed Hotel to keep him from doing what he came to
accomplish — getting out among the Iraqi people and the
U.S. forces to get firsthand, personal accounts of the
progress in Iraq -- speaks volumes. He meant it when it
says he won't allow the terrorists to win.
 
_______________________________________________________
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