Rockets' flash leads reporter to a scene out of hell WAR IN THE GULF

January 26, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

TEL AVIV, Israel -- I was staring dull-eyed at the road, driving in from Jerusalem, when the first two Patriot missiles rose in front of me, lifting my eyelids with them.

They were orange-yellow rockets racing for the sky.

Then the night turned fearsome. A Scud missile streaked in and struck Tel Aviv.

Two more Patriots arose and disappeared into an overhanging cloud, leaving a soft, diffused glow that belied their explosive intent. I pulled the car to the side and got out. I was virtually abreast of the Patriot batteries, with a ringside seat to the fireworks of war.

Two more Scuds arrived, so fast I twisted my neck to track them. They came with the speed of a falling star, but without an arc. They sought the earth and met it, the greeting a small red flower of flame.

Two minutes passed. Then the night was again suddenly inscribed by lines of battle. Patriot missiles leaped in defense. One raced barely above rooftop, whooshing past my car. Another pivoted, wobbly in the air, and turned on Tel Aviv. I was to find out later it landed two blocks from my hotel, frightening other reporters there who watched it approach.

A series of thunderous booms rolled out of the sky. Through a curtain of clouds, it was impossible to tell what the Patriots had hit. More Patriots went over my head.

For the first time in this war, I put on my gas mask. Inside the strange contraption, one's breath is loud. I noticed I was breathing hard.

I drove toward a section of the city I had seen struck by a rocket. A firetruck screamed past me, and I raced to follow it. Together we arrived at a quiet residential area that had been visited by hell.

The missile had hit a parking area in an apartment complex. Flames feasted greedily on the skeletons of a dozen twisted, mangled cars. Firemen were just beginning to aim their hoses.

Once-gracious trees were blacked and snapped. Utility cables lay lifeless on the ground near a crater 12 yards in diameter.

A line of cement, three-story apartment buildings had their shoulders to the blast. It ripped through the walls of the end units, and the concussion ricocheted through the courtyards between the buildings, crashing into each apartment.

David Simantov rushed for his sealed bedroom when the siren sounded but then curiously stopped. The hallway seemed to have a strong beam above it, so there he hugged his wife. The missile blast tore through the walls of his apartment and laid lethal waste to every room but the hallway.

Another man shook his head at the account of his elderly father. "He was packing his car to drive out of Tel Aviv because of the missiles," he said. "He went back into the house for another load when the missile hit. His car is ashes."

As other reporters began to arrive, the police cordoned off the scene. Olga Ezra, 63, took me by the hand and led me into the darkened rooms of the building closest to the blast.

This was her home, she said. It was now a testament to the power of explosives. The order of familiarity of her 35 years here was gone, surrendered to the blast. Furniture was tossed and splintered. The floor nowhad a crunchy carpet of glass. The force had hurled objects into walls and raked the furnishings.

Mrs. Ezra and her husband, Shlomo, 63, and grandson Yaniv, 16, were in a bedroom. The bed leaped with the blast, and the door to the room was thrown inside. Glass rained from a window. A dresser pitched and fell.

Slowly, said Mrs. Ezra, her husband got up, ran a hand over his bald head and concluded: "Still nothing there. I must be alive."

Now, with a tiny penlight, Mrs. Ezra swept through the glass on the floor.

"Here, look," she said, retrieving some snapshots. She brushed them off and offered them to me as she might on a lazy winter's eve. "This is my son. I have three sons. And this is his wife."

She looked around the debris with disgust.

"Oh, I wish I could offer you some tea." She spotted an object in the shadows, unwrapped it and gave it to her guest. "Here. Have some chocolate."

But, I insisted, what about your home? It is destroyed. With a wave of the hand she dismissed the place where she had raised a family.

"This is nothing," she said, with a shrug. "I live. Why should I cry?"

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