Attacked in Iraq: 'Am I Alive?'

Share
Copy

It was January 2006, a little more than a year ago. Bob Woodruff had just been named co-anchor, with Elizabeth Vargas, of ABC News' "World News Tonight." It was an exciting time for a broadcast and network that was still healing from the death of Peter Jennings.

With President Bush's State of the Union address approaching, and because the speech was expected to focus extensively on Iraq, ABC News executives wanted to use the opportunity to highlight the strength of the new two-anchor format.

It was decided that Vargas would anchor from Washington while Woodruff reported from the front lines in Iraq.

"We wanted Bob on the ground, first and foremost, because this was the biggest story in the world, frankly, not just in the United States, but in the world at the time," recalled ABC News President David Westin. "At the same time, we recognized there were risks, as there are for all of our people as they go to Iraq to cover this war."

The "A-team" was assembled to complement Bob's reporting.

Vinnie Malhotra was Bob's producer for the assignment.

"There's a sense of great responsibility that comes with being there, with covering this war, and that in and of itself is exciting," said Malhotra.

Doug Vogt, a cameraman who has covered all kinds of previous conflicts for ABC News and has spent hundreds of days working in Iraq over the past four years, was also chosen to accompany Bob, as was Magnus Macedo, Vogt's longtime friend and colleague, who went along as the sound man.

"We were very excited," said Macedo. "But we just wanted to basically do our job and get out of there, because we knew that things were really bad, and getting worse by the day there."

"I know it's going to be another day in a war zone. And I kind of like to say a little prayer to myself that it's going to be good and the day's going to end fast," said Vogt.

Checking in With the Troops

Bob wanted to embed during the weekend leading up to the State of the Union so he could report about the situation on the ground for U.S. troops serving there. He wanted to see up close the areas where Iraqi troops were taking a lead role in security and where U.S. troops were taking a supportive role.

"He said, 'I want to get out and see the Iraqis on the battlefield. I want to see what they're doing. I want to see how they're doing. I want to see them on patrol," said Maj. Bill Taylor, of the U.S. Army's Iraqi Assistance Group.

The crew linked with the Fourth Infantry Division at Camp Taji, located about 20 miles north of Baghdad.

Before the convoy got on the road that Sunday morning, Jan. 29, Taylor gave a briefing, as was typical before heading out on any mission. He emphasized to the men that they should be alert and keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary.

"It is very dangerous -- every time you roll out, and you can't take that for granted," said Taylor. "A lot of times people get complacent. They'll get used to it. It'll become commonplace."

The plan was for Taylor and the rest of the U.S. convoy to take Bob and the rest of the ABC crew to three sites.

Getting a Ride with Iraqi Troops

After seeing the first site, the convoy was stopped at a checkpoint where Bob observed an Iraqi patrol go by. Bob asked if he could ride with the Iraqis and experience an Iraqi patrol firsthand.

"I could tell that's the story he wanted to tell, and I honestly wanted him to tell that story. Because I think it's a story that needed to be told, that you had an Iraqi unit, who was out there leading the fight. They weren't running. They weren't running scared," said Taylor.

"It was not a preplanned thing that we were going to do," Vinnie Malhotra recounted. "It was kind of an on-the-spot, on-the-scene decision, which, obviously, you know, most of these decisions get made that way."

Taylor said Bob understood the risks.

"I warned him of the dangers, and he understood that. But I felt comfortable putting him in that vehicle," Taylor said.

The now joint convoy, made up of both Iraqi and U.S. military vehicles, started heading down Route Tampa, a major artery leading out of Baghdad, to the next checkpoint 5 kilometers -- a little over 3 miles -- up the road.

Almost immediately, Doug went up through the Iraqi tank hatch and started filming the scenery. Bob soon joined him to attempt a stand-up, in which a journalist speaks directly into a camera.

After a few attempts, the crew called Bob back inside the tank to tell him the noise was overpowering his voice.

"But you know, Bob can't stay crouched down in a tank for more than 10 seconds, and so he immediately popped up," said Malhotra.

Shortly after, the tank was rocked by an IED.

Explosion, Then Chaos

"It didn't take two minutes, and there was this humongous blast," said Macedo. "It's like a wave of evil that comes and shakes everything, and then everything comes to a standstill."

"I look at Vinnie [Malhotra], and Vinnie had big eyes, and he was screaming like hell."

Malhotra said he still remembers the fear.

"Just out of nowhere there was this bang … this immediate feeling of terror as you start to smell smoke," said Malhotra. "I remember feeling this complete cold feeling through my body and just, I think I began to scream 'no!'"

The bevy of activity that ensued immediately after the IED went off was punctuated by enemy fire coming in from three different locations.

Taylor ran from his vehicle up to where the IED had gone off. He remembered the Iraqis taking charge of the firefight, so the Americans could focus exclusively on the casualties.

The concussive force of the blast had thrown Doug backward on top of the tank.

"I didn't see a flash of smoke or a flash of light, and I was knocked back basically. I just remember the concussion and the force throwing me backward, throwing me back on top of the tank," said Vogt. "I was lying on my back, staring up at the blue sky, and I had a massive ringing in my head."

At this point, Bob crumpled back down inside the tank.

"I grabbed his flak jacket and I remember noticing a hole in the side of his neck, where I believe some shrapnel or rock or something had pierced," recalled Malhotra. "I remember thinking the only thing that I knew how to do at that moment was to just put my hand over his neck, maybe to try to stop some sort of bleeding."

Together, Vinnie and Magnus were able to pull Doug down. He appeared to be regaining consciousness but was bleeding heavily.

It was clear to the military personnel in their initial assessment that Bob's condition was more critical than Doug's, who had a gash on his head and was at risk for swelling. Bob was losing a lot of blood and had suffered a severe head trauma.

The focus outside the tank was on getting Bob and Doug on a helicopter and out of the area. But in order for the MedEvac to happen, Bob and Doug had to be moved to a safer location, about 1½ kilometers -- slightly less than a mile -- from where the IED had gone off.

"I went straight down to where Bob was, crouched down next to him, and I grabbed his hand," said Malhotra. "But he said to me, 'Am I alive?' and I said, you're alive, You're going to be OK."

A Scare Back Home for Family, Friends

Back in the states, Bob's wife, Lee Woodruff, was on vacation with their children in Orlando, Fla., when she got the news.

"The phone rang and it was 7 a.m.," said Lee Woodruff. "The voice said, 'Lee, this is David Westin,' who was the president of ABC News, and my heart sort of stopped, you know. I knew this wasn't good.

"He just said, 'Bob's been hurt, and we think he's taken shrapnel to the brain.'"

After surgery at a combat support hospital in Balad, Iraq, Bob had to be airlifted to Germany.

Lee flew to Germany, with Bob's brother, Dave, to see him.

"One side of his face looked pretty good," Lee said. "But when I walked around to the other side, the left side, that's when I saw what just didn't look like Bob."

Bob and Lee Woodruff have established a fund to assist members of the military who are suffering from brain injuries. To learn more, click here: Bob Woodruff Family Fund.

-- This embed didnt make it to copy for story id = 2899106. -- This embed didnt make it to copy for story id = 2899106.
null
Join the Discussion
You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...