Rescued pilot tells how he narrowly escaped capture

June 11, 1995|By New York Times News Service

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- As he lay in the bushes near where his parachute landed, his face in the dirt and his ears covered with camouflage gloves, Capt. Scott F. O'Grady thought that a ** few feet away there were people looking to kill him.

"It wasn't that they were just walking around me," the 29-year-old pilot said yesterday. "It was that they were shooting their rifles."

He had every reason to believe he was the intended target.

At his first news conference since his dramatic rescue two days ago, Captain O'Grady, whose F-16 jet fighter was downed by a Serbian missile while on NATO patrol over Bosnia, told how he managed to survive for six days in a Bosnian forest, hiding by day, never sleeping for more than half an hour at a time, moving around only at night, and even then never ranging farther than a mile and a half.

Once, at the start of the news conference, Captain O'Grady broke down and cried as he was listening to a tape of the radio conversation he had in the early hours of Thursday with his friend Capt. Thomas O. Hanford, then flying 30,000 feet over his hiding place. "Basher-52 reads you loud and clear," said the faint voice, barely audible over the crackling interference. "I'm alive. Help."

Later, Captain Hanford asked Captain O'Grady to name his squadron in Korea. "Juvat, Juvat," came the answer. "Copy that, you're alive. Good to hear your voice," Captain Hanford said.

"I am not a Rambo," said Captain O'Grady during the news

conference. "This is really amazing to me, all this attention I'm getting and everyone saying 'You're a hero, you're a hero.' Naah, I'm not a hero. All I was was a scared little bunny rabbit trying to hide, trying to survive."

Captain O'Grady, who leaves today for the United States to join his family, said he was still weak.

"I can't walk very fast and my feet are pretty bad right now, but I'm OK," he said, adding later that when his leave is over, he wants to go back to his job flying F-16s.

In a calm, composed voice, Captain O'Grady told his tale, stopping in several places to praise his rescuers and to thank God for protecting him.

But what was clear from the narrative was that Captain O'Grady felt himself to be in danger at all times, even as he was lifted out of Bosnia on board a Marine helicopter, heading for the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge in the Adriatic.

"We were flying out and the sergeant leaned over to me and says something about taking fire," he recalled. " 'Hell, yeah, I took fire,' I said, and he said, 'We're taking fire now.' "

But there was also luck, starting with the missile that struck his plane but spared the pilot. "The first thing I saw was the cockpit disintegrating in front of me," he said. "There was fire all around me, and this beautiful golden ejection handle between my legs. It was the most gorgeous sight I ever saw."

In his impatience, Captain O'Grady pulled the cord on his parachute while he was still at a high altitude, and this meant that he made a long and highly visible descent into an area where from the air he could see a military truck and some cars.

"The bad luck was that the only clearing in the sky was where I was at," he said.

"So everyone on the ground could see as I came down. They were standing there, watching me the whole time."

Within minutes of his landing, he could hear people -- he said later they numbered about 10 -- poking around his parachute. "After that, people were walking right by me and that continued on for a couple of hours," he said.

For the first few days, Captain O'Grady did not worry about eating. Then he said he ate some grass and leaves, and tried to hunt down some ants in an anthill next to his hide-out, but without much success.

"But what I really was was really thirsty," he said.

When he had finished the eight four-ounce packs of water that had been in his survival kit, he looked for sources of water, but found none. Then he prayed for rain and "God delivered."

Two or three times, he heard NATO planes flying overhead, but only during the daytime, when he did not dare reveal himself. Finally, on Wednesday night, he activated the emergency beacon on his radio and moved into a clearing so his signal would be clear.

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