Baghdad Journal: Rude Awakening

It was a rude awakening of the worst sort. Two missiles slammed into the Sheraton Ishtar Hotel (search), the home and office of Fox News’ team in Iraq, at 7:20 a.m. Friday morning.

We occupy the entire fourth floor, and a few of us live one flight up on the fifth. That’s the top floor of the atrium level, but the hotel towers another 10 floors. The missiles hit near the 15th floor, shattering the glass elevator shaft and causing debris to smash through the atrium ceiling and litter the lobby and our two floors.

For journalists in Baghdad, the day never really ends at 5 p.m., and sometimes it never ends at all. The night before the attack, a group of us were eating a very late meal in the hotel. A few of us were discussing the Middle Eastern perspective of what’s happening in Iraq with Mashdi, our coordinator from Jordan.

As political conversations normally go, hours passed with little notice and I ended up leaving the table about twelve hours later.

Just over two hours later I heard a racket in the hallway. I’ve grown accustomed to not assuming the worst so I rolled over and continued my slumber.

Bangs on the Door

Five minutes later there was loud banging on the door. Blurry eyed, I opened the door to see one of three security officers working for Fox News at my door. Tony, a stout ex-British Royal Marine, was standing on the nappy '70s-era carpet. Glass sprinkled his flak jacket, and he had a look of disbelief on his face. 

 “Are you freaking deaf, the hotel was just hit! Grab your gear and head downstairs!”

I threw on my pants and grabbed my "go bag" — a bag of gear we have been instructed to always have at the ready, with satellite phone, beeper, first-aid kit and some food, which my bag was lacking.

On the Street

I emerged on the fourth floor with the entire team running. A live shot with Steve Harrigan was being readied, and the newsroom was abuzz.

I only had about three minutes to digest all that was happening before our coordinating producer Zoran sent me down to the ground floor to help the three or four crew we had dispatched out front of our hotel and to investigate what was happening at the Palestine Hotel just across the street.

With a hand-held radio, I ran down the stairs. I skirted the edge of the lobby, so as not to expose myself to any falling debris, and headed out to the parking lot.

Since there are so many reporters staying in the two hotels, there were TV crews and journalists running all about.

I walked into the Palestine Hotel’s lobby just as one of the injured was being brought out on a gurney. I radioed in what was happening and met one of our crew as the man was put into the back of an ambulance.

I teamed up with them, and one of our Iraqi staffers grabbed the camera tape to run it back up to the newsroom.  We were now a team of five — myself, another producer, Tano, security member Taff, cameraman Allah and a driver also named Allah.

We then started heading to the back of the Palestine to see the damage. On the way we got word that the launch site was just down the main street from the blue-domed mosque that is the familiar backdrop for Fox News' live reports.

After diverting several blocks, we finally gained access to the road, just across from where a calm donkey was standing next to an overturned cart used as the launching pad for the attack.

We then walked another five blocks so we could cross the street and approach the donkey from just a block away. The entire time, we were feeding information back to the newsroom.

En route I got a radio message from Zoran that my girlfriend and my brother had both called in. He assured them that I was OK and that I slept through the attack. Neither was surprised, as I’m known as a sound sleeper. Nice bit of levity.

The street was full of U.S. military and Iraqi police and a cluster of media trying to get a glimpse and shot of the cart.

This was where we met up with another local staffer, Ziad, who had not been able to get into the hotel area, as it had been sealed off. We sent him back to meet someone at the gate to drop off yet another tape.

We covered an impromptu press conference near the donkey cart and radioed in the details.

It then took us about 40 minutes to get back to the Sheraton, as the entire area was cordoned off. We entered through the main door, but had to snake our way through offices behind the front desk to avoid the lobby. Allah, the camera operator, sprinted upstairs to drop off the press conference tape.

We reached the rear of the lobby, and the usual morning buffet was still there. Tano and I took a breather for a bit of food and a needed a cup of coffee. We sat in silence as we gathered our energy to hike back upstairs. We sipped our coffee as the hotel staff was still sweeping the glass off the lobby floor.

Needless to say, my sleep will not be as deep tonight.