Delta Company under fire
Second of three parts: Monday, March 4, 5:30 p.m.
Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news around the world.
By Martin Savidge
BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan (CNN) -- We've rushed to the abandoned al Qaeda compound, racing the fading sun.
Darkness falls like a curtain once "Bob," as the soldiers call it, dips below the mountain peaks. (Bob stands for Big Orange Ball.)
The compound is nothing but a mud building surrounded by a 10-foot-high mud wall. Debris, old ammunition and the amputated legs of goats lie all about. Inside the hut, we find the scattered belongings of those who lived there, covered in dust. In a back corner, a sorry-looking dog sits and stares at us with glowing eyes.
While cameraman Scott McWhinnie goes to work inside, I step back outside. Suddenly I hear a sound and recognize it instantly: It's the distinctive "Bee-Now" of an AK-47. It ain't the good guys. There's a moment of silence and then more of the same kind of shots. Next comes another familiar sound, M-16s carried by coalition soldiers.
The gunfire is centered round the ridge we've just left. The deadly crescendo grows with the addition of a Russian heavy machine gun. It's answered by the 50-caliber. Muzzle flashes from the friendly troops firing from the ridge give away their position. Taliban mortars begin to fall.
I stand transfixed by the fight. Colored smoke billows from just behind the coalition line. It's a signal calling for close air support. But the bad guys are too close to the good guys. The planes can't hit one without the chance of hitting the other. They stay away.
The valley air is electric with tracer fire. The hair on the back of my neck rises. Red and green trails mix in the middle. I instinctively duck as yellow tracer rounds fly over my head from the Russian gun. Had they been on target I'd already be dead: Four invisible bullets fly ahead of each illuminated round.
We abandon the compound and drop behind another coalition position at the base of a large hill facing the battle. I hear frantic calls on the radio quickly trying to give grid coordinates of where the shooting is coming from. Mortar rounds bracket U.S. positions on another ridge. In front of them a Taliban fighter falls. Two more rush out to pull him back. The 50-caliber machine gun drops them both before they make 10 steps.
No movie I've seen is like this. I'm afraid, wondering how strong the attacking force is. It's my first time covering fighting from which I have no way out.
Despite mortars blasting around their positions, Delta Company doesn't back off. The soldiers would later tell us that a mortar landed right where we'd put our sleeping bags. It was a dud.
Beside us, the crews of two 60 mm mortars jump into action. Commands are shouted -- range, direction. It's all happening way too fast. The rounds are dropped down the barrel but don't go off. Instead the mortar men squeeze a trigger sending the round out with a sharp "bang!"
The firefight rises and falls, then rises again. More hurried radio calls, corrections for the mortars. They launch again.
This time they fall close to target. A little short, but the 60 mms are at max range. Still, it's enough to keep the attackers' heads down.
"Bring it on!" the radio shouts.
One of the mortars fails. The round squirts out at a low trajectory and impacts the ground halfway to target. The soldiers are down to one tube now. It continues to fire and I wonder how many rounds they have. I know not many.
Suddenly it all stops.
The firefight's over as quickly as it started. Everyone's high on adrenaline. Amazingly, there are no coalition casualties.
It's now almost pitch dark. Warplanes begin pounding the area where the Taliban are thought to be retreating. It's relentless. The valley flashes with manmade lightning. The smacks of the resulting explosions resonate in our chests and shake the ground. Again and again and again.
It's getting cold. We don't dare try to get back to our backpacks on the ridge in the dark. If the Taliban didn't shoot us, the jacked-up coalition forces would.
We're cut off from our extreme cold weather gear and wearing only shirts and pants under our body armor. As the temperature steadily drops -- heading for a low of zero -- the five of us come to the same conclusion: We may have survived the firefight but there's no way we'll survive the night.
Coming: Savidge on the icy part of this trilogy -- "I'm tempted to remove the steel plates from my body armor since they seem to strap the cold to my front and back. But if the mortars come again the steel will stop the shrapnel. I have never been so cold. And the worst is still eight hours away ...
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