INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
December 3, 1997
Sgt. TIM WILKINSON climbed back into the wrecked helicopter to see whether he could get more leverage to free the body of pilot Cliff Wolcott. Perhaps there was some way he hadn't seen at first to pull the pilot seat back and get more room and a better angle. But after a while he saw that it was hopeless.
He crawled out of the cockpit of Blackhawk Super 61, and, kneeling on top of it, he peered through the open right side doors into the main cargo area. They had accounted for the pilots - both dead - and one of the crew chiefs, who was injured. Wilkinson knew some of the guys from Super 61 had been rescued by a Little Bird that had landed and loaded up survivors.
He thought everyone was out of the wreck, so now he was looking for any sensitive equipment, weapons or papers to be removed. As a member of a highly trained rescue team, he had been taught to quickly erase the memory banks of any electronic equipment that held important data. In this case, he didn't want Somalis taking classified stuff once Wolcott's body was recovered and the Americans had pulled out.
All the avionics equipment and every piece of gear that hadn't been strapped down had come to rest at the left side of the aircraft, which was now the bottom. In the heap Wilkinson noticed a scrap of desert battle dress uniform.
``There's somebody else in there,'' he told Sgt. First Class Bob Mabry, a Delta Force medic standing alongside the wreck.
Wilkinson leaned in farther and saw an arm and a flight glove. He called down into the wreck, and a finger of the flight glove moved. Wilkinson climbed back into the wreckage and began pulling the debris and equipment off the man buried there.
It was the left side gunner, Staff Sgt. Ray Dowdy. He was still in his seat. Part of the seat had been snapped off its hinges, but it was basically intact and in place.
When Wilkinson freed Dowdy's arm from under the pile, the crew chief was sufficiently alert to start helping to shove things away. Dowdy still hadn't spoken and was clearly dazed and disoriented. The last thing he remembered was noticing he didn't have his seat belt fastened before hitting the ground.
Wilkinson was throwing things off and prying things back. He reached in to help Dowdy pull free of the seat. Mabry crawled down under the wreck and tried without success to make his way in through the bottom right-side doorway to reach Dowdy from below. He gave up and climbed in through the upper doors just as Wilkinson freed Dowdy.
The three men were standing inside the wreck when a storm of bullets tore through the skin of the craft. Mabry and Wilkinson danced involuntarily, hopping away from the sharp burst of snapping and crashing noises. Dowdy saw the tips of two fingers shot off, just the tip of his index finger and about half the first digit of his middle finger. He felt no pain and said nothing. Bits and pieces of debris were flying around them. To Wilkinson it looked like a sudden snowstorm. Then it stopped.
Wilkinson put his hand over Dowdy's bleeding fingertip and said: ``OK, let's get out of here!''
Mabry tore up the bullet-resistant floor panels and propped them up over the side of the craft where the bullets had burst through. To avoid the gunfire outside, Mabry and Wilkinson tunneled out of the aircraft, digging wider a hole where the rear corner of the left side door was above ground. They slid Dowdy out that way.
Then the two medics went back inside for a few more minutes, searching for more equipment to destroy. Mabry set to work handing out the bullet-resistant panels from the interior, which were being placed around the tail of the aircraft where a wounded sergeant, Scott Fales, had established a casualty collection point.
Fire was coming from all directions, but mostly straight up and down the alley. They were still expecting the arrival of the ground convoy at any moment. They had no way of knowing that the convoy was lost and taking heavy casualties.
``Scott, why don't you get behind the Kevlar [floor panels]?'' Wilkinson asked. Fales looked startled. Only now did he notice the barricade.
``Good idea,'' he said.
Crouched down behind the panels, Wilkinson and Fales watched as the intense gunfire ripped first one hole through the tail boom, then another. Then another.
Wilkinson was reminded of the Steve Martin movie The Jerk, where Martin's moronic character, unaware that villains are shooting at him, watches with surprise as bullet holes begin popping open a row of oil cans. Wilkinson shouted Martin's line from the movie.
``They hate the cans! Stay away from the cans!'
Both men laughed.
After patching up a few more men - the wounded D-boys who had been in the crash, Dowdy, and his fellow crew chief Charlie Warren - Wilkinson crawled back up into the cockpit from underneath, to see again if there was some way of pulling Wolcott's body down and out.
Chapter 19: Under fire at crash site one.