Raining Rockets

Monday, July 31, 2006

I didn't need an alarm clock Sunday morning. A Katyusha rocket hit close enough to shake the hotel. Then another hit, and another; I think five hit in all, right at 7 a.m.

Later, at our live location in Kiryat Shmona — more rockets came flying in. One after another, booming into the hillside, occasionally hitting the town.

There were 25 in a single hour, and dozens more in the afternoon.

Early evening, back at the hotel and very close to the border, there were more incoming rockets. None of them hit the building, or even hit the block, but it's still a bit freaky. I keep waiting for the direct shot, wondering if the ceiling will collapse on my head.

Video: Covering Bint Jbail

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

We're spending the day as close to the Israeli-Lebanese border as anyone could possibly get, at an unused guard post featuring communications, lookout towers, and a thickly-fortified concrete bunker.

The fence separating Israel from Lebanon is right in front of us, on the other side of a single-lane road. Beyond the fence is a scorched field about a mile wide and the town of Bint Jbail, a Hezbollah stronghold where eight soldiers were killed and almost two dozen wounded in an ambush yesterday.

Our Israeli crew talked their way past several military checkpoints to reach this spot, using back roads and the help of Rotem, a local guy who's working with us and knows the area very well.

Almost as soon as Yuri, the engineer, established our live signal and Yaniv hooked up his camera, the howitzers nearby opened fire. They were shelling over our heads and hitting targets with claps of thunder right in front of us, trying to kill off Hezbollah guerrillas who might still be hiding out in town.

The attack didn't last long, and while we've heard sporadic gunfire, fighter jets, and more artillery fire, we haven't seen any more strikes on Bint Jbail since this morning.

In the meantime, the bunker's been a blessing. It feels about 20 degrees cooler inside than out in the bright sun, so we've been using it as a refuge between every live shot. It also makes us feel a bit safer when the rounds are flying by.

Lunch arrived very late because Mark, our Jerusalem bureau manager, got stuck at a checkpoint. The soldiers wouldn't let him through with our food, so Rotem left and met him at the checkpoint and brought back the sacks of grub and sodas. By the time we sat down to eat, the fries were cold and the meat lukewarm, but none of us complained. The bunker burgers definitely beat power bars or MREs.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The artillery fire didn't wake me, but the maid did, twice. I need to find a "Do Not Disturb" sign in Hebrew.

We're seven hours ahead here, so when I work the p.m. shift, my first live shot isn't until 8 p.m. local time, and when I'm packing up after Greta's show, it's 6 a.m. and nearing full light.

The five of us (me, Shep, photographer Olaf, producers Ian and Shush) piled into a taxi at dawn and headed back to the hotel. We found CNN's satellite truck parked there with Christianne Amanpour and John Roberts side-by-side, in front of the camera. We exchanged greetings on our way in.

When I got up today, CNN was gone, but ABC was going live across the street.

From my window, I can see the border fence; it's a little more than a stone's throw away. Beyond it, there are fields scorched by some of the many fires that ignite after a rocket attack.

Yesterday, we drove through thick smoke in Kiryat Shmona, with brush fires on both sides of the highway. The hills burned all night.

The howitzers have been thumping regularly since I got up, sending shells out, but the incoming rockets don't seem to be falling here — at least not yet. According to the wires in my Blackberry, Haifa is getting hit hard, again. A teenage girl is dead, others are wounded, and sirens continue to wail there. Meanwhile, the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) claims it has taken out two of the launchers responsible for the latest wave.

Unfortunately, Hezbollah may have hundreds more well-hidden launchers, and thousands more rockets to load in the tubes.

Monday, July 24, 2006

I heard, and felt, the Katyusha rocket, but don't think I saw it until it slammed into the hillside behind me, just above the town of Kiryat Shmona.

I was standing on a platform on a rooftop in front of our camera ready to go live, just before 8 a.m. Sunday, when the Katyusha whistled by. It streaked past our hilltop in the center of the valley and smacked the hills beyond.

There was a puff of smoke marking the impact point. Soon, a fresh fire would blaze there, one of several burning on the ridge separating the town from the Lebanese border.

The rocket arrived without warning; no sirens, no heads-up. There was just the whistle and the thud, and then people around me were ducking and running inside for cover as a second rocket whooshed overhead and hit further along the hillside. A third rocket landed nearby, hitting a house.

I ducked, then stood up and heard the anchors say my name as the camera panned off the hill towards me. As I began to report on what we were seeing and hearing, another Katyusha landed in a field a couple hundred yards in front of me, right next to an electric transfer station, knocking out our power. No power, no camera, no IFB (the producers, techs, and programming fed into my ear), and no live TV.

I did a couple of phoners and when the power came back on, I ran back to the roof and got back on the air at about 8:45 a.m. Five minutes later, producer Shushannah Walshe and I were the only ones left hanging out there when another rocket came screaming over our heads. It felt even closer and louder than the first one, and we both hit the deck, diving to the ground.

I've been scared on the job before, of course, and while every hurricane I ride out and every conflict I cover helps prepare me for the next one, this still freaked me out, at least temporarily. The rockets are fast and loud and come out of nowhere and when they hit you can feel the concussion, even from a distance.

Today, more rockets are falling in Kiryat Shmona, and in Metulla, where I also watched fighter jets bomb a position just over a hill probably no more than half a mile from where I was standing. The hills are on fire again, and the air is thick with smoke.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

We endured what the flight attendant called "severe turbulence" on the trip from Newark to Tel Aviv. Perhaps a hint of things to come, although bouncing around at 30,000 feet could be tame compared to the trouble my producer Kathleen and I could soon find on the Israel-Lebanon border.

It's very difficult to watch a major story unfold from afar. I was supposed to come to the region a week ago, but couldn't, because my daughters were staying with me, and I have limited opportunities to spend time with them. My bosses were very supportive and my colleagues have done terrific work since the conflict started. I'm excited to join them.

The roads outside Tel Aviv were crowded with vehicles, but as we travelled further north, into the green hills and valleys, the traffic melted away. Many people have headed south, to safer ground, to wait out the constant katyusha rocket fire.

I don't know what we'll find, how close we'll get to the action, or how long the hostilities will last. I guess we'll find out soon enough.