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Night on the brink

Third of three parts: Monday, March 4, 8:30 p.m.

Martin Savidge reports from the field for CNN on major breaking news stories and has anchored several of the network's regularly scheduled newscasts.
Martin Savidge reports from the field for CNN on major breaking news stories and has anchored several of the network's regularly scheduled newscasts.  

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) -- The cold gets worse. The five of us -- myself, cameraman Scott McWhinnie, an Agence France-Presse journalist and two armed public affairs soldiers -- are shivering violently.

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've never been so cold. And the worst is still eight hours away.

Capt. Pool, a public affairs officer, gives me his gloves of thin leather, they barely help. He selflessly gives me a wool hat, saying his helmet keeps his head warm. I know he's lying and curse myself for accepting what I know he needs.

We talk about what we can do. The situation is serious, heading for dangerous.

CNN's Martin Savidge reports that after nearly 19 days, largest battle of war against terrorism completed (March 19)

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Images from Operation Anaconda 
Map of Afghanistan  showing the location of the fighting

Savidge reports: The Battlefield

A reporter's reflections
The road home
Getting out
Mining snow

Soon the chilling cold will become killing cold. The soldiers around us can offer little to help. They came with only the barest of cold weather gear for themselves. They have nothing to spare. They're cold, too.

As we talk among ourselves, the five of us are in constant motion. My fingers have lost all feeling. So have my toes. We continually stomp our boots trying to warm our feet. We try to joke about our dilemma and sit down together behind the shelter of a small wall. The cold invades our bodies from the ground. We laugh about what the archeologists will think when they discover our bodies together a thousand years from now scratching their heads about what sort of bizarre ritual we were practicing.

An officer comes by. All he can offer is advice. He tells us to climb the big hill behind the soldier's position, to try to keep our circulation going. The thought of walking up and down all night seems impossible. Our bodies are exhausted from the more-than 10 kilometers we hiked during the day. We've not slept in 24 hours.

I start to stagger up. The effort is made more difficult by the fact that I can't feel my feet. Some of the others stay behind. When I finally make it to the top of the hill, gasping in the high elevation, I feel no better. I look at my watch. Surely daylight is an hour closer. It's been barely 10 minutes.

I start the descent, nearly tumbling head over heels as my boots catch on unseen rocks on the steep slope. No way can I keep this up.

Deepening cold

At the bottom, I can't fight the urge to lie down and just go to sleep. My mind is screaming that this is all wrong. But I feel better. The shivering has left me. There's a sense of warmth. Again my brain interjects: "You're not better -- it's a clear warning sign of hypothermia."

I ignore the voice in my head and curl into a fetal position.

The others are worried for me. They call over a medic. He tells me I have to get up. I don't want to. As I slowly rise, he walks, holding onto me, asking questions. I know he's testing my mental state. Confusion is another sign of hypothermia. I get the answers right.

The medic returns me to the group. Sometime later he comes back with five poncho liners. He lays a space blanket on the ground and tells all five of us to lie down. We barely fit, smashing our bodies together, sharing our body heat.

Normally it's something five grown men would never do. This is not a normal night. We don't hesitate. We cling together in an action the soldiers call "spooning." The medic drapes the ponchos on top. We struggle to cover us all. I begin to shiver again. That's good. We regularly ask each other if we're all right. I drift in and out of consciousness.

Seemingly endless hours of agony follow. Some get up and climb. The medic stands watch above us. I go into a sort of hibernation.

The ground beneath us is shaking almost as violently as we are -- strike aircraft, B-52s and B-1 bombers continue to hammer enemy positions all around us. Ridiculously, I remember thinking that to be hit by a bomb would be a quick ending. But at least there'd be an instant of heat. The barrage is almost nonstop and deafening.

Sometime in the night, soldiers come by and offer a head scarf or spare pair of gloves. I can't put into words the kindness of the gesture. I pray ...

We survive.

Rising from the ground at 5:30 a.m., we will Bob (the "Big Orange Ball") to reappear above the mountains. When it's light enough, we radio the men on the ridge that we're coming and we hurry to get to our gear.

As we stagger back into their position, the soldiers say, "Hey, you missed it" -- referring to the firefight.

I'm thinking of the night just past. Yeah we missed it, but it was damn close.

Coming next: Savidge wraps up his Afghanistan assignment with a three-part series of articles -- and is hardly out of harm's way yet: "Warplanes continue pounding of the valley floor. Wave after wave of them comes in to drop bombs. They fall so close to our position you can hear the shrapnel cutting the air just over our heads ..."




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