A terrifying scene, then a big crash
ABDIAZIZ ALI ADEN heard the American helicopters coming in low, so low that the big tree that stood in the central courtyard of his stone house was uprooted and knocked over. Aden was 18 but looked five years younger, a slip of a man with thick, bushy hair.
Aden rushed outside when the helicopters passed over. He heard shooting to the west, near Hawlwadig, the big road that passed before the Olympic Hotel three blocks west. Aden ran toward the noise. The sky was dark with smoke.
The air around Aden sizzled and cracked with gunfire. Above him were helicopters, some with lines of flame spitting from their guns. He ran two blocks with his head down until he saw several big American trucks and humvees, with machine guns mounted on them, shooting everywhere.
The Rangers wore body armor and helmets with goggles. Aden could see no part of them that looked human. They were like futuristic warriors from an American movie. People were running madly, hiding from them. There was a line of Somalian men in handcuffs being loaded onto big trucks. On the street were dead people and a dead donkey splayed out in front of its water cart.
The scene terrified Aden. As he ran back to his house, one of the Blackhawk helicopters flew over him at rooftop level. It made a rackety blast, and wash from its rotors swept over the dusty alley like a violent storm. Through this dust, Aden saw a Somalian militiaman carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher – an RPG – step into the alley and drop to one knee.
The militiaman waited until the copter had passed overhead. Then he leaned the RPG up and fired at the aircraft from behind. Aden saw a great flash from the back end of the launcher and then saw the grenade explode into the rear of the helicopter, cracking the tail.
The body of the aircraft started to spin, so close to Aden that he could see the pilot inside struggling at the controls. The pilot could not hold it, and the helicopter started to flip. It was tilted slightly toward Aden when it hit the roof of his house with a loud, crunching sound, and then slammed on its side into the alley with a great, scraping crash in a thick cloud of dust and rock and smoke.
The helicopter had destroyed part of Aden’s house; he feared his family had been killed. He ran to the crash and found his parents and eight brothers and sisters trapped under a big sheet of tin roof. They had stepped outside and were standing against the west wall when the helicopter hit and the roof came down on them. They were not badly hurt. Aden worked his way past the crashed helicopter, which had fallen to the alley sideways so that the bottom of it faced him. He helped pull the roof off his parents and brothers and sisters. Afraid that the helicopter would explode, they all ran across a wide, rutted dirt road to a friend’s house three doors up. There they waited.
There were no flames and no explosion. Soon Aden came back to guard his house. In Mogadishu, if you left your house open and undefended, it would quickly be looted.
Smoke had stopped rising from the helicopter when he returned. He ran into his house and stood in the courtyard by the uprooted tree and saw that the wall where the helicopter had crashed was gone; it was just a heap of stones and dusty mortar.
Then, standing inside his house, Aden saw a wounded American soldier climb out of the crumpled machine, and then another American with an M-16. Aden turned and ran back out a side door and hid behind an old white Volkswagen on the dirt street. He slipped down and crawled under it, curling himself up into a ball, trying to make himself small.
When the American with the gun rounded the corner he saw Aden under the car. Seeing that Aden had no weapon, the soldier moved on. But first he stopped alongside the car – Aden could have reached out and touched the soldier’s boots – and pointed his gun at a Somalian man armed with an M-16 across the street from the car.
The two men fired at the same time but neither fell. They went to shoot again but the Somali’s gun jammed and the American didn’t shoot. He ran closer, over to a wall across the road, then fired. The bullet made a hole in the Somali’s forehead, and he toppled. The American ran over and shot him three more times as he lay there.
Then a big Somalian woman came running from a narrow alley, right in front of the soldier. Startled, he quickly fired his weapon. The woman fell face forward, dropping like a sack, without putting out her arms to break the fall.
More Somalis came now, with guns, shooting at the American. He dropped to one knee and shot many of them, but the Somalis’ bullets also hit him.
Then a helicopter landed right on Freedom Road, the street in front of Aden’s house. It seemed impossible that a helicopter could fit in so narrow a street. It was a Little Bird, the Americans’ fast, tiny and highly maneuverable copter. Its rotor blades were just inches from the walls of Aden’s house and the house directly across the road. The roar of the helicopter was deafening, and dust swirled around. Aden couldn’t breathe. Then the shooting got worse.
One of the airmen was leaning out of the helicopter and aiming his gun up the street behind where Aden was hiding. Another airman ran from the helicopter toward the Blackhawk that had crashed. The shooting got even worse then. It was so loud that the sound of the helicopter and the guns was just one continuous explosion. Bullets were hitting and rocking the old car that was shielding Aden. He curled himself into a ball and wished he was someplace else.
AT THE JOINT OPERATIONS Center next to the airport, cameras on three surveillance helicopters had captured close-up and in color the crash of the helicopter, code-named Super 61. Maj. Gen. William F. Garrison and his command staff had watched it live: pilot Cliff Wolcott’s black chopper moving smoothly, then a shudder and puff of smoke near the tail rotor, then an awkward counter-rotation as Super 61 fell, making two slow turns clockwise, nose up until its belly bit the top of a stone building and its front end was cast down violently, rotors snapped and flying, its fuselage smashing into a narrow alley on its side against a stone wall in a cloud of smoke, dust and debris.
There wasn’t enough time for anyone to consider all the ramifications of that helicopter’s sudden end, but the sick, sinking feeling that came over officers watching on screen went far beyond the immediate fate of the six men on board.
America’s 10-month mission to Somalia, handed off by one president to another, the latest symbol of the nation’s commitment to a New World Order, had just taken a crippling hit. The ambitious nation-building hopes of United Nations bureaucrats were lying in a twisted hunk of smoldering metal, plastic and flesh in an alley in northern Mogadishu.
Chapter 4: Rangers come under increasing fire.