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 I 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 "wheelsup" 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 he says he won't allow the terrorists to win.