As Bombs Fell on Baghdad, Three CNN Reporters Scored a Coup

updated 02/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

During Cable News Network's coverage of Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, one particularly memorable phone call came to producer Wendy Walker from an enterprising reporter in the field. "He said, 'Well, I'm on the roof calling from a cellular phone, and the hurricane's coming at me,' " Walker recalls. "Then he said, 'I'm going to hang up, but I'll dial back when I'm in the eye of the hurricane.' "

John Holliman did call back from Gilbert's interior, but not until this month could he have realized that the fearsome tropical storm was little more than a practice drill. During the chaotic and terrifying first hours of the attack on Baghdad. Holliman, 42, CNN anchorman Bernard Shaw, 50, and veteran war correspondent Peter Arnett, 56, produced some of the most spellbinding audio reportage since Edward R. Murrow's harrowing World War II accounts of the London blitz.

From their vulnerable ninth-floor vantage point in Baghdad's reinforced Al Rasheed hotel, the reporters sent the war's immediacy straight into America's living rooms. "The Baghdad coverage was incredible." says media-watcher Roger Simon, author of Road Show, a chronicle of the 1988 presidential campaign. "It's like the talking dog. You don't care what the dog is saying. You care that he can talk."

Holliman, a onetime CNN agriculture reporter who in 1989 covered the aftermath of Beijing's Tiananmen Square massacre, had been assigned since late November to cover escalating tensions in the Middle East. But on the night of Jan. 16, as tracer fire lit Baghdad's skies, he received his first exposure to war. "My biggest fear was that I didn't know what to be afraid of," he says. "I'd say to my producer, Robert Wiener, who had been in Vietnam, Robert, I'm too stupid to know when to be scared. Every so often I'm going to ask you if I should be afraid or be worried or should leave. If you tell me to stay. I'll stay.' "

And stay he did, often drawing on the considerable experience of colleague Peter Arnett, a longtime AP correspondent who won a 1965 Pulitzer prize for his coverage of the Vietnam War. "I asked him, 'Peter, what's the worst that can happen?' And he told me, 'In bombing, the odds are 95 percent that you won't be hit, and if you are, about one in a hundred that you'll be killed. So don't worry about it.' "

After hearing a rumor that the hotel was a strike target, the CNN staff hustled to the Al Rasheed's bomb shelter, where Holliman was then prevented from leaving by Iraqi soldiers carrying AK-47s. "We stayed down there for three hours," he says. "Finally I just needed to know what was going on, so I told one of the guards I had to get my medicine—heart condition. I ran through the door and up the nine flights of stairs."

If Holliman, a Thomaston, Ga., native, was CNN's country boy on the scene, the Chicago-born Shaw served as elder statesman. In Baghdad attempting to interview Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Shaw instead was swept up in covering the assault. "It's the closest I've come to death," says Shaw, a former correspondent for ABC and CBS who signed on with CNN in 1980 and anchored its on-scene coverage of Tiananmen Square. "I knew we were at ground zero. My biggest fear was that there would be some kind of Iraqi backlash against Westerners in general and Americans in particular. We would have been helpless."

By late Thursday morning, Baghdad time, Shaw's overwhelming fatigue became apparent when he suddenly began reminiscing about a favorite pub in his Takoma Park, Md., hometown. "I was totally mentally and physically exhausted, and I think I started rambling," he recalls. "I said, 'Look, I've got to get some sleep, or I'm gonna be useless to all of us here.' " But under the circumstances, even that proved to be a challenge. "During a lull in the air raids, I went to my room and just as I'd gotten into bed, they started again. I just lay there, and the bed was shaking."

During Shaw's time in the Al Rasheed's shelter, with 200 locals, hotel employees and journalists, he found himself inadvertantly amusing the Iraqis. "They were fascinated with this pressurized can of Cheddar cheese I had." he says. "You tilt the nozzle with your finger, and it comes out. I offered one of our minders some, and he said, 'The astronauts!' "

Peter Arnett's decision to stay behind in Baghdad does not surprise his colleagues, past or present. "Peter represents everything that's best in the profession," says author David Halberstam, who covered the Vietnam War alongside Arnett. "I've seen him stand up to all sorts of pressure out there, and he doesn't back down from anything."

Although the New Zealand native has also covered fighting in Nicaragua, EI Salvador and Afghanistan—and in 1987 was beaten by Soviet militiamen during a Moscow street demonstration—friends insist Arnett is no cowboy. "Peter has no death wish, and he does get seared," says writer Neil Sheehan, another old Vietnam hand. "He's not absolutely fearless. He takes what risks are necessary, but he doesn't take foolish risks."

Now that they are out of harm's way, Arnett's compatriots are savoring their homecoming. "I walked into the work space, right to the phone, and called Linda, my wife," says Shaw, the father of two teenagers, who arrived in CNN's Amman. Jordan, bureau Friday night EST. "People were applauding and cheering as if they couldn't believe we were there."

Holliman had similar priorities. After returning to his five-acre spread in Loudoun County, Va., "I had a wonderful love affair with my wife," he says, "and later a chicken barbecue sandwich at the bureau. I still have eye bags, but I feel great."

If there was anything to temper CNN's pride, it was complaints from the competition that the upstart network had curried favor with the Iraqis to get permission to set up the four-wire communications line that allowed CNN to keep broadcasting when the phone system went down. The correspondents saw no need to apologize.

"We got the four-wire because we had two smart producers in the region early on," says Holliman. The sentiment is echoed by Shaw. "I'm aware of the grumbling and the allegations, and it didn't bother me at all," he says. "We were in a most competitive situation, and when I'm competing, it's my intent to do my best."

They do worry about the welfare of Arnett, who remained in Baghdad, sending heavily censored reports under the eye of Iraqi monitors. According to Holliman, "When we were leaving, Peter said, There will come a time in the future when the Iraqis say, "Okay, we're not going to censor you anymore." The only person who will be able to report that is the guy who's here.

" 'And I want to be that guy.' "

S—usan Schindehette, Katy Kelly and Sarah Skolnik in Washington, D.C.

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