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Reporter's Notebook: No Time to Fear

August 11, 2006
Kiryat Shmona

It was a hurried conversation with Mom. I tried to assure her I was okay.

It’s a good thing she’s on vacation and far away from her TV. I don’t think she’d be able to stomach the reality of this war, or at least my reality. The air raid siren wailed. I hung up, and raced up the stairs.

Flak jacket. Check. Helmet. Check. Time to hustle out the door.

It happened in an instant.

ZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzz. The unmistakable and violent sound of an incoming Katyusha rocket screamed over my head. There was no time to think — just barely enough time to dive. BAM! I don’t remember the next few fractions of a second, as I dropped to the ground, but I do remember picking myself up off the pavement.

It was the closest of calls. A hit 200 yards away. Smoke poured out of a building. Adrenaline coursed through my body.

Next, my attention turned to one of my colleagues — a much younger, seemingly fearless, well-chiseled mass — a guy who has been outside with me for nearly every rocket attack in Kiryat Shmona over the last two weeks. He hadn’t budged an inch.

“I just froze up,” he told me. “I don’t know why. But I couldn’t move.”

Sometimes, you don’t have time to get scared out here. Only later will you notice that your hands are shaking and your shirt dripping with sweat.

The other day, after another close call, my hands seemed to tremble for a couple of hours. The rocket hit no more than 500 yards away.

Reflections can be cathartic, especially when you’re around to talk about them.

According to Israeli Police: To date, 3,650 Katyusha short-range Hezbollah rockets have slammed Northern Israel over the course of this war. 51 people have been killed. 1,874 people have been taken to local hospitals for their injuries.

The busiest single day was August 2nd, when 230 Katyushas hit Israel, the majority of them in Kiryat Shmona. Kiryat Shmona is the most attacked region of Israel, with 932 strikes. Nahariya is second, with 730 rockets.

Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2006
Kiryat Shmona

Think of how your mother used to line up your shoes in your laundry room, all orderly and neat, so you could easily find your sneakers before heading out to play. In Kiryat Shmona, it's the flak jackets and Kevlar helmets now all in a row for the inevitable rocket attack. I prefer my gear to be right by the door. Sometimes, I won't even remove my gear — what's the use?

It's almost gotten to the point where a mere gust of wind will send most of the Israelis working out of our broadcast space to the bomb shelter. It has gotten to the point where I find myself rushing to the roof upon hearing the apparent wail of an air raid siren. Oftentimes, it's one of our guys just playing tape of an earlier rocket attack as they work on a piece for later in the day.

Last night, my crew found itself in an unusual traffic jam. Instead of being slowed by a stalled car or a jackknifed truck, we found ourselves braking for a line of Israeli Mercova tanks. We were close enough to smell the fumes of the exhaust, belching from this beast. While I was in awe of this hulk of war machinery, an unsettling thought crossed my mind — tank, don't back up!

A few weeks ago, these thoughts would have never crossed my mind. Life is an uncertain luxury, with incongruities aplenty.

Sunday, Aug. 6, 2006
Kiryat Shmona

Video: A close call with rocket fire

It’s starting to feel like we’re in the middle of a round of Russian roulette. Except here, it feels like there’s more than one bullet in the chamber, and this is clearly not a “game.”

The casualty count from Katyusha rocket strikes hit a single-day high today, as a barrage of rockets shellacked Northern Israel, killing 12. One of the strikes slammed into a group of Israeli reservists preparing to head into Southern Lebanon for battle. They never had a chance. When the death toll had been nine, Army Radio reporter Hadas Shtief delivered some haunting commentary: "This was the most difficult thing I could have imagined in my career. There are nine bodies here covered in blankets, around us cars are going up in flames. On one side is the cemetery, on the other side are the nine young bodies waiting for burial."

Every day I’m here, the rocket barrage seems more violent and better coordinated. Today’s attacks were unprecedented. The Israeli military estimates 50 rockets slammed into the Kiryat Shmona area today in the course of a half-hour span — the most intense barrage of any stretch over the course of this war.

One of my colleagues is a strong barometer of the escalating threat.

Yesterday, for the first time during his three-week war posting in Northern Israel, photographer Mal James put on a flak jacket. This morning, he started wearing a helmet. And by this afternoon, after the day’s fatal barrage, I noticed he had carefully affixed a piece of yellow duct tape to the back of his helmet. “O Positive. OK Penicillin.” It’s his blood type, written in indelible ink. Mal is a battle-tested journalist with several wars under his belt, including the second Iraq war. That yellow tape left an indelible impression.

My crew remains among the few people in our work space still riding out these Katyusha attacks, outside of the bomb shelter. However, my producer, a sweet, hard-working Israeli woman in her mid-twenties, has reached her limit. When an air raid siren wails, she now heads for the bomb shelter. And I don’t blame her. Today, she e-mailed to my Blackberry a request from New York for a report.

The five days of intensified rocket attacks are starting to take their toll on the Israelis. Many wear the stress on their faces. After today’s hammering, I noticed tears welling up in the eyes of the young female receptionist. She doesn’t speak much English. I asked her if she was upset watching her country get relentlessly bombarded. “Yes,” she meekly replied. “And, for all the young soldiers."

Friday, Aug. 4, 2006
Kiryat Shmona

"Play nice," screams Mal James, directing his verbal fire at both Hezbollah and the Israeli military. It’s a downright comical announcement. He made it a few times yesterday, and now a few times this morning, too, after the crushing boom of a 155-mm Israeli Howitzer cuts through the air.

Neither side in this war listened to Mal yesterday. No one would today either. Not that Mal expects his order to command any attention.

RRRRRRRRrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. RRRRRRRRRRrrrrr. The air raid siren cranked up early on this Friday. Considering what the alarm is supposed to presage, I don’t find the sound as ominous as perhaps I should...at least not yet. There’s no time to dwell upon your surroundings or upon the danger, just time to react.

It’s just three days into this posting, and I am already getting somewhat accustomed to certain routines that should be downright dismaying. I can swing my flak jacket over my body and button up, without breaking stride (my best time is about 10 seconds). I can eat a meal al fresco amid a raucous cacophony of war noise. And I can translate the body language of Bureau Chief Eli Fastman as to whether it’s outgoing Israeli or incoming Hezbollah fire:

When Eli repeatedly wags his index forward, with the same sense of deliberateness as a teacher lecturing an elementary school kid, that’s the sign for outgoing. When he raises his index finger in the air, and holds it like a parent about to tell his child something important, that’s the sign to stay alert. And when he twirls his index finger in rapid fashion, with the same motion as a New Year’s Eve reveler, that’s the sign for incoming. The latter is the sign you don’t like to see.

Today, we didn’t even get a sign. The rockets showered Kiryat Shmona so quickly it’s as if the rockets were coming out of an automatic machine gun. BOOM! BOOM! Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz. BAM! ZZZZZzzzzzzzzz. BAM! You have no idea when a Katyusha rocket is headed your way, but if you hear their signature echo, you know they are close. Often, it’s too late. Imagine Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader engaged in a light saber fight. That buzzing WHOOSH is kinda how a Katyusha sounds before its violent life ends in an explosion.

As fate would have it, we were getting ready to go live on the air for FOX & Friends, when a barrage of Katyushas started screaming into our world. For about 15 minutes, it was as if the gates of Hell had opened, and we were invited to watch.

BOOM! BAM! ZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. BAM! BAM! BAM! It seems everytime I tried to collect my thoughts, a fresh strike forced me to steer my talking points to a different side of the mountain, or a different side of the city, or a different farm field. The strikes were EVERYWHERE! The action was intense! ZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz! I caught just the tail end of the rocket as it streaked over the top of our building, coming within 500 yards of nailing our workspace. It’s at this point, that I leaped to the ground to take cover. It’s at this point that this war became acutely real.

Over the course of those 15 minutes, more than 40 rockets would slam the greater Kiryat Shmona area, killing one person. Two others were killed by rocket attacks, raising the Katyusha death toll to 30. Sobering numbers on a sobering day, a day in which you are forced to take stock of your life and how quickly it can all end.