'A gentleman to the end'

2003-08-26 08:58

Baghdad - US 1st Sergeant William von Zehle raised his voice as the stranger whose life he had been battling to save for the past three hours seemed to be fading.

The rescuer was within arm's length of the man, who was trapped upside down in the rubble 9m deep in the collapsed UN headquarters.

"Sergio. Sergio! Stay with me! Don't go to sleep on me! You're doing all right!" von Zehle shouted.

That was the only name von Zehle knew for the man, severely hurt, covered in dust between the collapsed, concrete slabs at the bottom of a 9m shaft. Von Zehle - a 52-year-old retired fire chief from Ridgefield, Connecticut - worked furiously to clear the debris crushing the man, passing it up the shaft, brick by brick, in a woman's purse hoisted out by a curtain drawstring.

The army reservist spoke to the man constantly, comforting him and trying keep him from going into shock. The man told von Zehle about his wife, his two children, his home in Brazil.

Thinking of others

But in his last, agonising hours, the man never mentioned that he was Sergio Vieira de Mello, the veteran UN diplomat and Secretary-General Kofi Annan's hand-picked envoy to Iraq.

It wouldn't have mattered if he was a janitor, von Zehle said, but the man's in-charge manner didn't suggest a janitor.

Pinned, bones broken and likely bleeding internally, Vieira de Mello kept asking questions.

"How is everybody? How many people were hurt? Can you tell me what happened?" von Zehle remembered the diplomat asking. "I thought: 'He's in a world of hurt and he's thinking of other people?"'

Von Zehle was one of the first American soldiers to arrive at the UN's headquarters minutes after a suicide bomber detonated a truck packed with munitions under the window of Vieira de Mello's office. It was an unprecedented attack on the world body that killed at least 23 people and wounded more than 100 others.

Von Zehle's unit, the 411th Civil Affairs Battalion, was based in an army community information centre about 100m behind the UN building.

He was standing by a window at the centre and had just put on his flak vest and helmet to go to a meeting when he saw an orange flash and the shockwave threw him across the room.

Before running out the door, he pulled a shard of glass from his right thigh and bandaged his right forearm where other pieces had sliced him.

Shortly after arriving at the blast scene and calling for help by radio, he squeezed his lean 185cm frame into a 60cm gap that began on the hotel's third storey.

'Time was against us'

As he climbed head first down to Vieira de Mello, he passed three dead bodies and his pocket torch slipped from his teeth falling into the darkness and furnace-like heat below.

Between clearing the rubble away, von Zehle pressed his shoulder against an electrical conduit so he could reach Vieira de Mello to monitor his vital signs. He gave him morphine to numb the pain. A Military Police medic who was also a firefighter joined von Zehle and focused on a man named Gil trapped just above Vieira de Mello.

As other soldiers outside tried to help by moving debris, they unknowingly set off mini-avalanches inside the shaft, undoing the work of von Zehle and the other soldier.

"It wasn't getting any safer in there, time was against us," von Zehle said, adding he was afraid the whole shaft could collapse at any moment.

Vieira de Mello's responses were becoming slower and less coherent and he fell silent just as they finally freed the man on top of him. Von Zehle checked for a pulse, the envoy's heart was beating, but he had lost consciousness. Shortly afterwards he died.

Gil, whom von Zehle could not further identify, was pulled out alive. After hours of moving bricks, von Zehle said he barely had enough strength to pull himself up a rope that was thrown down the shaft.

He emerged exhausted and angry.

"I just wanted to punch a wall," von Zehle said. "I wanted to go back in. When I came out my aid bag was just about completely empty. I just wanted to go back in." But his commanding officer told him to he was in no condition to continue.

Von Zehle said he was sure they could've brought both men out alive if they had the basic equipment available to an average American fire department, such as auguring tools and things as basic as buckets and personal radios.

"I've been doing this for 31 years and this hit me harder than any other time," he said. "Just because of the frustration of not having the equipment we needed to do the job right. That's not the army's fault, it's not the army's job."

It was only hours later that von Zehle caught a satellite television news report paying tribute to Vieira de Mello that he realised who he had been trying to save.

A gentleman right to the end

"Then I felt even worse because of what they were saying. The secretary-general was talking about his years of dedicated service and I was thinking what a waste to have somebody like this taken away in his prime," von Zehle said.

It was then that von Zehle said he felt "a moral obligation" to write a letter to Annan recording Vierra de Mello's final words as best as he could remember them. He quickly typed out the one page letter, which he described as a stream of consciousness, and gave it to a UN security official next door.

"I thought maybe the family and the secretary general would like to know what a gentleman he was right to the end," von Zehle said.

Von Zehle said he could not share Vieira de Mello's final wishes with a reporter because he felt that would be betraying his trust.

At a tearful ceremony at Baghdad International Airport on Friday, UN Oil-for-Food Programme director Benon Sevan quoted von Zehle's letter.

"Even under the most extreme pain, pinned down under rubble in his office, he said to 1st Sergeant von Zehle of the coalition forces trying to rescue him, 'Don't let them pull the mission out,"' Sevan read.

At the wake in Vieira de Mello's home country Brazil, Annan again made reference to the words in von Zehle's letter, saying that the diplomat's dying wish was for the UN to remain in Iraq.

"Let us respect that," Annan said. "Let Sergio, who has given his life in that cause, find a fitting memorial in a free and sovereign Iraq."