INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
December 2, 1997
JUST EIGHT MINUTES after Cliff Wolcott's Blackhawk went down, a Blackhawk carrying a rescue team moved over the crash site in south Mogadishu. Inside were 15 men who had trained for months as a combat search-and-rescue unit. Their specialty was saving downed pilots.
But even professionals who practice the same moves a thousand times can overlook a detail in the heat of an actual mission. The team hit the fast ropes perfectly and slid down. It was the last man out, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Tim Wilkinson, who noticed that their medical kits had been left behind.
The oversight delayed Wilkinson's slide down the rope. He had to wait until the men 30 feet below him reached the ground and got out of the way. Only then was it safe to throw down the kit bags. By the time he reached the rope, the timing was off by several crucial seconds.
It was just enough time to leave the big Blackhawk exposed to fire from crowds of Somalis converging on Wolcott's crash site. As pilot Dan Jollota held his hover and Wilkinson slid down the rope, a rocket-propelled grenade exploded on the left side of the airframe. The Blackhawk was knocked slightly sideways, as if absorbing a roundhouse punch. Jollota instinctively began to pull up and away.
Coming out. I think we have been hit, Jollota radioed to the command helicopter circling overhead.
You have been hit . . . Behind your engines . . . Be advised you are smoking.
One of the crew chiefs screamed into the radio: We still have people on the ropes!
In the cockpit, Jollota could hear his rotor blades whistling. Shrapnel from the blast had poked holes in them. The aircraft started to slosh from side to side. Instinct and training dictated that he move away the instant he was hit. But Jollota eased the Blackhawk back down to a hover for the few more seconds Wilkinson and Fales needed to clear the ropes.
Despite the brown dust cloud below, Jollota's crew could see both men reach the ground safely. He pulled up and away. He eased the Blackhawk back toward the main base three miles away, trailing a thin gray plume of smoke. Limping the last mile, Jollota plowed the heavy Blackhawk into the base landing strip. The bird came down with a quick roll right on the landing wheels. They hit with a jolt, but the bird stayed upright and intact. They walked away.
WILKINSON HEARD the snap of rounds passing nearby as soon as he hit the ground. It was hot, and in the cloud of dust he couldn't see. He ran to the right side of the street and waited for the dust to settle.
He tried to orient himself. He couldn't see Wolcott's downed Blackhawk or the rest of his rescue team. The only thing he saw was the medical bags, still lying in the middle of the street. He ran out and snatched up both bags.
Still running, he rounded a corner and stumbled upon the wrecked Blackhawk. The size of it stunned him. He was accustomed to seeing the choppers in the air or on spacious tarmacs. In this narrow alley it looked tragic, like a harpooned whale, beached on its left side.
Wilkinson was surprised to see that the Rangers and D-boys from his rescue unit had already set up a tight perimeter around the crash site. Scattered around were the bodies of several Somalis, and in the distance there were many more. He couldn't see inside Super 61 to determine if the eight men who had been aboard were still alive.
Near him, a Ranger, Sgt. Alan Barton, shot two Somalis as they rounded the corner, a man with an M-16 and a woman with him. Barton picked up the Somali's rifle, clicked a magazine into it, and took it with him.
At the front of the helicopter, Wilkinson's team leader, Sgt. Fales, was stretching up to peer inside and check for survivors when he felt a tug at his left pants leg. Then came the pain. It felt like a hot poker stabbing through his calf muscle. Fales, a big, broad-faced man who had fought in Panama and during the Persian Gulf war, felt anger with the pain. He had trained years for a moment like this, and after less than three minutes on the ground he'd been shot.
He hopped back away, grimacing. Bullets whizzed and snapped up the adjacent alley. A Delta medic came over to help, and Fales hobbled back toward the rear of the helicopter. He nearly bowled over Wilkinson, who was making his way forward.
``What's up?'' Wilkinson asked, startled.
``I've been shot,'' Fales said. ``Rat bastards shot me.''
Fales ducked into a deep hole that the crashing helicopter had left in the alley wall. He cut open his pants and saw that the bullet had passed through his calf muscle and out the front of his leg. Nothing was broken. By the look of it, with flaps of muscle tissue spilled out of the wound, Fales figured it ought to hurt badly. But other than the stabbing sensation right after he'd been shot, there was little pain. He figured his fear and adrenaline were acting as an anesthetic.
He folded the muscle tissue back into the wound, packed some gauze into it, and applied a pressure dressing. Then he crawled back out into the alley, finding cover in a small, cup-shaped space behind the main body of the helicopter created by its bent tail boom.
Fales' wound heightened Wilkinson's sense of urgency. He had thought they would have a few minutes to set up before coming under attack. In past missions, it had usually taken 10 to 20 minutes for a Somalian crowd to gather around any action on the streets. But now they had to mount their rescue under immediate heavy fire.
Wilkinson assumed Lt. Col. Danny McKnight's ground convoy would be pulling up at any minute; he had no way of knowing that the convoy was hopelessly lost and getting hammered. He and his team would need to get the wounded and dead out of the helicopter, treat the wounded, and have the men on litters by the time the vehicles approached. But he hadn't even been inside the helicopter yet, and now his rescue team leader was wounded.
Briley was obviously dead. On impact something had sliced through his head, angling up from just under his chin. His body was relatively easy to reach because he was strapped in the right seat, which was now on the high side. Wilkinson helped McMahon pull Briley up and out, and then handed his body down to two sergeants. They carried him over to the designated casualty collection point, the protected space where Fales had crawled.
McMahon climbed down into the cockpit and checked on pilot Cliff ``Elvis'' Wolcott.
``He's dead,'' he told Wilkinson.
Since McMahon was not a medic, Wilkinson felt the need to see for himself. He told McMahon to get some medical attention for his face, and then he climbed up into the bird.
It was eerily quiet inside. There had been no fire, and there was no smoke. Everything inside that hadn't been strapped down had been violently thrown around and had come to rest on the left side, which was now the bottom. There was a slight odor of fuel inside, where various liquids were draining down. He dipped his finger in the fluid and sniffed. It wasn't fuel.
Wilkinson was suspended upside down as he reached in and felt Wolcott's carotid artery for a pulse. He was dead. He and Briley had taken the brunt of the impact, and Wolcott, because his side had hit the ground, had gotten the worst of it. The whole front end of the helicopter had folded in on him from the waist down. He was still in his seat, and his head and upper torso were intact, but the nose and instrument panel and crumpled front end of the aircraft had collapsed into his lap.
Now the rescue team had to figure out a way to cut Elvis out of there. They were not leaving without him. They would not consider it. They did not leave their dead on the battlefield.
Wilkinson tried to slide his hand to grab the pilot's legs, but there wasn't space. He could not be lifted or pulled free. Wilkinson then slid completely into the helicopter and crawled back behind the pilot's seat to see if Elvis could be pulled back and out that way, but that vantage looked no better.
He climbed out and got down on the dirt by the smashed left underside of the cockpit, digging to see if there was a way to create an opening underneath the wreck so that Elvis' body could be extracted. But the Blackhawk had plowed hard into the soil. There would be no easy way to get the body out.
Chapter 17: A discovery inside Super 61.