Mast Fall 2001
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From the Front Lines:

Saying goodbye

D-Day for Operation Anaconda

Entering the fray

Left in the dark

Weathering the combat

Realities of the job

Making hard choices

 

Other Features Stories:

We're Changing Things

A Degree of Difficulty

United by a Friend

From the Front Lines

Weathering the combat

The next morning, they awoke before the sun rose and waited for it to clear the mountains. They got the OK to go back to their original position to reclaim their gear.

"Then the irony was to go from freezing to death to an extremely warm day, and we had run out of water. We couldn't borrow from the soldiers because they needed it." Then mortar fire and bombing started again. "It was enough to keep the soldiers busy without us saying, 'Oh, can we borrow some water?'"

There were no streams; the only way to get water was from a snow line on the mountain some 100 yards away. The problem was, they were separated from it by wide-open territory, where they would be at risk of being shot or hit by mortars.

"We took turns, made a mad dash over there with empty liter bottles with a small little plastic spoon and we'd frantically try to shovel the spoon into the mouth of the bottle, all the while ducking and keeping our eyes up."

The snow would melt to create about a quarter bottle of water. After a couple of trips, they eventually had enough to drink.

As evening set in, the journalists were told they were going to be pulled out. The story had leaked out, and the media were anxious to see the first footage from the mission. They were taken by two scouts to a landing zone and watched a flurry of helicopters coming and going, all landing in exactly the wrong place. The closest was a good 100 yards away, and they were separated from it by a steep ravine.

"We took off running, stumbled and got up and stumbled and got up and rolled and fell again. Just as we got up to the hill the helicopter had landed on, they took off because they knew it was dangerous sitting on the ground. We were left sitting on the ground and choking and cursing."

Again, it became dark, and they couldn't make it back to the shelter of American lines. The two scouts were with them, however, and the other soldiers knew where they were. They spent another night sleeping out in the open amid mortar fire and heavy bombing by U.S. aircraft. They were up the next morning before light, and the scouts used infrared lights to signal the choppers.

"We could hear the helicopters and suddenly could see them, and we realized this helicopter was coming right for us. We made a frantic scramble to get out of the way, climbing up the sides of a little hill because the main land was taken up by the helicopter landing. I could look back and see the blades of the helicopter, and I thought we were going to be cut in half or blown down by the helicopter."

They were able to climb aboard and return safely to Bagram after three days of involvement in the combat phase of Operation Anaconda.

Savidge and McWhinnie staggered off the helicopter and walked a mile and a half back to camp. They were greeted by a crowd of journalists who had satellite equipment set up and were ready to broadcast.

"We said, 'What happened, what's going on?' Journalists came rushing up and said, 'You're what's going on.' We had no idea Operation Anaconda had become such a huge story back home."

Savidge began filing reports over the telephone while satellite equipment was being readied for live feeds. He and McWhinnie spent the next 36 hours reporting live from Bagram. Their seven to eight hours of video was the first view Americans had of Operation Anaconda.

"I think that's why it was such a big story."

For Savidge, the story didn't compare to the pain and shock of covering Ground Zero or the emotion he felt at the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing.

Savidge had spent a month and half at Ground Zero beginning Sept. 12. Now he was at the opposite end: taking part in a major operation designed to seek justice for the attacks.

"I grabbed a telephone as soon as I got off the helicopter. I called my wife and she answered the phone. I couldn't speak; it was just so emotional. We had gone through such peaks and highs and lows thinking we really weren't going to come out alive. I said, 'Just talk to me, just speak, let me hear you.' She, of course, was worried because, why couldn't I talk? After about five to 10 minutes of that I was able to get a hold of myself, just being able to hear her and hear my children, and we began talking.

"Personally it was one of the most remarkable, most frightening, most thrilling, most journalistically challenging things I had ever done. Is it the biggest story? Personally, maybe yes, but in consequence of anything I've ever reported on, obviously Sept. 11 holds that spot for now. But I was one of a very select few to go on a remarkable mission at a remarkable time that turned out not to be the way anyone had expected."

NEXT: Realities of the job

 

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