INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
November 23, 1997
The chopper hadn't hit anything hard enough to flip it over. A Blackhawk is built with shock absorbers to withstand a terrifically hard impact, so long as it lands in an upright position. And Durant's Super 64 Blackhawk was indeed upright.
In other ways, Durant and his three crew members were less fortunate. The crash site was about a mile from the Delta commandos and Rangers on the ground near the downtown target site. Durant had been shot down while taking the place of Cliff Wolcott's Blackhawk, which had crashed only a few blocks from the American troops.
Goffena flew a low pass and caught a glimpse of Durant in the cockpit, pushing at a section of tin roof that had caved in around his legs. Goffena was relieved to see that his friend was alive.
He flew close enough to catch the frustrated look on the face of Durant's copilot, Ray Frank. Frank had been in a tail-rotor crash like this one on a training mission several years before. It had broken his leg and crunched his back, and he had been involved in a legal battle over it ever since. To Goffena, the look on Frank's face down there said, I can't believe this has happened to me again!
At this point, 4:45 p.m., command conditions were on overload. Most of the Rangers and Delta Force soldiers inserted at the target building were moving to the site of Wolcott's downed helicopter, where the air-rescue team had already roped in.
The situation report from the command helicopter sounded beleaguered.
We are getting a lot of RPG fire. There's a lot of fire. We are going to try to get everyone consolidated at the northern site [Wolcott's crash] and then move to the southern site [Durant's crash].
In the back of Blackhawk Super 62, Goffena had, in addition to his two crew chiefs, three Delta commandos: snipers Randy Shughart, Gary Gordon and Brad Hallings. With Somalis closing in, he knew Durant's downed crew wouldn't last long. They were an air crew, not professional ground fighters like the D-boys.
Goffena's crew gunners and the snipers were now picking off armed Somalis. Goffena would drop down low, and the wash of his propellers would force the thickening crowds back. But the men with RPGs were slower to take cover, and his snipers were picking them off.
Goffena also noticed that every time he dropped down now, he was drawing more fire. He heard the ticking of bullets poking through the thin metal walls of the airframe. A couple of times he saw a glowing arc where a round would hit one of his rotor blades, which would spark and trace a bright line as the blade moved.
Goffena's Blackhawk and other helicopter gunships were holding the crowds back. Goffena and the other circling pilots worked the radio, pleading for immediate help. They were repeatedly assured that a rescue by the hurriedly assembled ground convoy was imminent.
But Goffena's air commander, realizing that it was taking too long to get the new column up and moving, approved Goffena's request to put two of his helicopter's three Delta commandos on the ground. The idea was for them to give first aid, set up a perimeter, and help Durant and his crew hold off the Somalis until the arrival of a rescue force.
This was not a hopeless mission. One or two properly armed, well-trained soldiers could hold off an undisciplined enemy indefinitely. Shughart and Gordon were experts at killing and staying alive. They were career soldiers trained to get hard, ugly things done. Gordon had enlisted at 17; his wife and children lived near Fort Bragg, N.C. Shughart was an outdoorsman from Western Pennsylvania who loved his Dodge truck and his hunting rifles.
When the crew chief gave Gordon the word that he and Shughart were going in, Gordon grinned and gave an excited thumbs-up. Goffena made a low pass at a small clearing, using his rotor wash to knock down a fence and blow away debris. He held a hover at about five feet, and the two D-boys jumped.
Shughart got tangled on the safety line connecting him to the chopper and had to be cut free. Gordon took a spill as he ran for cover. Shughart stood motioning with his hands, indicating their confusion. They were crouched in a defensive posture in the open.
Goffena dropped the copter down low and leaned out the window, pointing the way. A crew chief popped a small smoke marker out the side in the direction of Durant's helicopter. Shughart and Gordon ran to the smoke. The last thing the crew chiefs saw as the Blackhawk pulled away was both men signaling thumbs-up.
MIKE DURANT CAME TO and felt something was wrong with his right leg. He had been knocked cold for at least several minutes. He was seated upright in his seat, leaning slightly to the right. The windshield of his Blackhawk was shattered, and there was something draped over him, a big sheet of tin.
The helicopter seemed remarkably intact. The rotor blades had not flexed off. Durant's seat, which was mounted on shock absorbers, had collapsed down to the floor. It had broken in the full down position and was cocked to the right. He figured that was because they were spinning when they hit. The shocks had collapsed, and the spin had jerked the seat to the right.
It must have been the combination of the jerk and the impact that had broken his femur. The big bone in his right leg had snapped in two on the edge of his seat.
The Blackhawk had flattened a flimsy hut. No one had been inside, but in the next hut a 2-year-old girl, Howa Hassan, lay unconscious and bleeding. A hunk of flying metal had taken a deep gouge out of her forehead. Her mother, Bint Abraham Hassan, had been splashed with something hot, probably engine oil, and was severely burned on her face and legs.
The dazed pilots checked themselves over. Ray Frank's left tibia was broken. Durant did some things he later could not explain. He removed his helmet and his gloves. Then he took off his watch. Before flying he always took off his wedding ring because there was a danger it could catch on rivets or switches. He would pass the strap of his watch through the ring and keep it there during a flight. Now he removed the watch and took the ring off the strap, and set both on the dashboard.
He picked up his weapon, an MP-5K, a little German automatic rifle that fired 9mm rounds. The pilots called them ``SPs,'' or ``skinny-poppers,'' a reference to the nickname ``skinny'' the soldiers had bestowed on the wiry Somalian militiamen.
Frank was trying to explain what happened during the crash.
``I couldn't get them all the way off,'' he told Durant, explaining his struggle to turn off the engines as the helicopter plummeted. Frank said he had reinjured his back. Durant's back hurt, too. They both figured they had crushed vertebrae.
Durant could not pull himself out of the wreckage. He pushed the piece of tin roof away and decided to defend his position through the broken windshield.
Durant saw that Frank was about to push himself out. That was the last time he saw him. And just as Frank disappeared out the doorway, Shughart and Gordon, the Delta commandos, showed up.
Durant was startled by their arrival. He didn't know either man well, but he recognized their faces. He knew they were D-boys. He felt an enormous sense of relief. He didn't know how long he had been unconscious, but it had evidently been long enough for a rescue team to arrive.
His ordeal was over. He had been thinking about getting the radio operating, but now, with his rescuers at hand, there was no need.
Shughart and Gordon were calm. They reached in and lifted Durant out of the craft gently, one taking his legs and the other grabbing his torso, as if they had all the time in the world. They set him down by a tree.
He was not in great pain. Durant was in a perfect position to cover the whole right side of the aircraft with his skinny-popper. Behind him the front of his aircraft was wedged tightly against a tin wall, closing off any easy approach from that side.
He could see that his crew chiefs had taken the worst of the crash. They didn't have the shock absorbers in back. He watched them lift Bill Cleveland from the fuselage. He had blood all over his pants, and was talking but making no sense.
Then Gordon and Shughart moved to the other side of the helicopter to help Tommy Field, the other crew chief. Durant couldn't see what was happening. He assumed they were attending to Field and setting up a perimeter, or looking for a way to get them out, or perhaps looking for a place where another helicopter could set down and load them up.
Somalis were starting to poke their heads around the corner on Durant's side of the copter. He squeezed off a round, and they dropped back. His gun kept jamming, so he would eject the round, and the next time it would shoot properly. Then it would jam again.
Durant also did not know, none of them did, that only 110 yards or so away, pilots Keith Jones and Karl Maier were waiting. The same team that had set the Little Bird down near the first crash site to help Cliff Wolcott's downed crew had now set their helicopter down again - to help Durant and his crew.
Jones and Maier were aiming their weapons at alleyways leading to the clearing, expecting a crowd of Somalis to show up any second, and hoping that Shughart and Gordon would arrive with Durant and his crew. They were eager to load everybody up and hustle out of there.
Goffena, circling overhead, had seen Shughart and Gordon lift Durant and then Cleveland and Field out of the fuselage. He knew they weren't going to be able to carry them to where Jones' Little Bird was waiting.
He got on the radio and explained to Jones and Maier that the D-boys had set up a perimeter around Durant's Blackhawk. They had badly wounded crew members. They could not make it to the Little Bird. They were going to have to hang on until the ground force arrived.
After waiting on the ground about five minutes, Maier and Jones reluctantly asked for permission to leave and refuel. The Little Bird was running low, and they were vulnerable. They lifted off, leaving the Americans at crash site two to their fate.
DURANT'S BLACKHAWK had crashed in Wadigley, a crowded neighborhood just south of where Yousuf Dahir Mo'Alim lived on a street of rag huts and tin-roofed shanties. Mo'Alim was an armed bandit and gunman for hire, but on this day he had thrown his entire gang of 26 street fighters into the citywide effort to fight off the American invaders.
The instant Durant's helicopter hit the ground, Mo'Alim saw everyone around him reverse direction. Moments before, the crowd on the streets and the fighters had been moving north, over to where the first helicopter had crashed. Now everyone was running south. Mo'Alim ran with them, a goateed veteran soldier waving his weapon and shouting.
``Turn back! Stop! There are still men inside who can shoot!''
Some listened to Mo'Alim, for he was known as a militia leader. Others ran on ahead. Ali Hussein, who managed a pharmacy near where the helicopter crashed, saw many of his neighbors grab guns and run toward the wreck. He caught hold of the arm of his friend Cawale, who owned the Black Sea restaurant. Cawale had a rifle. Hussein grabbed him by both shoulders.
``It's dangerous. Don't go!'' he shouted at him. But there was the smell of blood and vengeance in the air. Cawale wrestled away from Hussein and joined the running crowd.
Minutes later, as Mo'Alim and his men reached the second crash site, they saw Cawale sprawled dead in the dirt, just four paces in front of the helicopter. The ground all around was littered with the bodies of Somalis. As Mo'Alim had expected, the Americans around the crashed helicopter were still very capable of fighting.
He tried to hold the crowd back, but they were angry and brazen. He wanted to find a way for his militiamen to get clear shots at the Americans, but it was difficult to approach the small clearing where the helicopter lay. The Americans had every approach covered with deadly automatic-weapons fire.
Mo'Alim waited for more of his men to catch up so that they could mount a coordinated attack.
DURANT STILL THOUGHT things were under control. His leg was broken but it didn't hurt. He was on his back, propped against a supply kit next to a small tree, using his weapon to keep back the occasional Somali who poked his head into the clearing.
He could hear firing on the other side of the helicopter. He knew Ray Frank, his copilot, was hurt but alive. And somewhere were the two D-boys and his crew chief, Tommy Field. He wondered if Tommy was OK. He figured it was only a matter of time before the ground vehicles showed up to take them out.
Then he heard one of the Delta guys - it was Gary Gordon - shout that he was hit. Just a quick shout of anger and pain. He didn't hear the voice again.
The other Delta guy, Randy Shughart, came back around to Durant's side of the bird.
``Are there weapons on board?'' he asked.
The crew chiefs carried M-16s. Durant told him where they were kept, and Shughart stepped into the craft, rummaged around and returned with both rifles. He handed Durant Gordon's weapon, a CAR-15 automatic rifle loaded and ready to fire. He didn't say what had happened to Gordon.
``What's the support frequency on the survival radio?'' Shughart asked.
It was then, for the first time, that it dawned on Durant that they were stranded. He felt a twist of alarm in his gut. If Shughart was asking how to set up communications, it meant he and Gordon had come in on their own. They were the entire rescue team. And Gordon had just been shot!
Durant explained standard procedure on the survival radio to Shughart. He said there was a channel Bravo, and he listened while Shughart called out. Shughart asked for immediate help, and was told that a reaction force was en route. Then Shughart took the weapons and moved back around to the other side of the helicopter.
Durant felt panic closing in now. He had to keep the Somalis away. He could hear them talking behind a wall, so he fired in that direction. It startled him because he had been firing single shots, but this new weapon was set on burst. The voices behind the wall stopped. Then two Somalis tried to climb over the nose end of the copter. He fired at them, and they jumped back. He didn't know whether he had hit them.
A man tried to climb over the wall, and Durant shot him. Another came crawling from around the corner with a weapon, and Durant shot him, too.
Suddenly there was a mad fusillade on the other side of the helicopter that lasted for about two minutes. He heard Shughart shout in pain. The shooting stopped.
High overhead in the surveillance helicopters, worried commanders were watching on video screens.
Do you have video over crash site number two?
Indigenous personnel moving around all over the crash site.
That's affirmative, over.
The radio fell silent.
Terror washed over Durant like nothing he had ever felt. He could hear sounds of an angry mob. The crash had left the clearing littered with debris, and he heard a great shuffling sound as the Somalis pushed it away. There was no more shooting. The others must be dead. Durant knew what had happened to soldiers who had fallen into the hands of angry Somalis. They did gruesome, horrible things. The rumor around the hangar was that they'd played soccer with the heads of a couple of downed pilots earlier that summer. That was in store for him now. His second weapon was out of rounds. He still had a pistol strapped to his side, but he never even thought to reach for it.
It was over. He was done.
Chapter 9: The crowd closes in for revenge.