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A Price Too High: Lasting Lesson of Munich Massacre

JIM MURRAY

September 06, 1987|JIM MURRAY

The phone was ringing. I awoke groggily to answer it. Any time you answer the phone at 6:30 in the morning, you're not going to like what you hear.

But, even by 6:30 a.m. standards, this was terrible. "Hello," said a strange voice on the other end. "This is Joe Alex Morris in the Bonn bureau. Now, on that guerrilla break-in down there, are you going to need any help?"

I shook my head to clear the cobwebs out. I struggled to remember where I was. Ah, yes, in Munich. For the Olympics. But wait a minute! What guerrillas? What break-in?

"A group of Palestine terrorists broke into the Israeli compound at the Olympic Village this morning," Joe Alex explained. "They're holding hostages. They've killed at least one."

I thought hard for a moment, canvassed my options. I didn't have any.

"Listen, Joe," I told my colleague. "I'm a sports columnist, not to be confused with a journalist at all. I haven't covered a police story in 25 years and I can't speak German. Hell, yes, I'm going to need help down here."

"I'll be right down," promised Joe Alex.

And that was how it started, 15 years ago Saturday, the most nightmarish "sports" story I have ever covered.

I remember going downstairs to the lobby, uncertain where to begin. Howard Cosell was on his way out the door. "Come on," he shouted. "We're off to the village. I've got a car."

I jumped in beside him. On the other side, Shirley Povich of the Washington Post, looking ashen, leaped aboard. Up front sat massive Tony Triola, an ABC photographer.

We screamed along Munich streets amid sounds of sirens.

"It's the Third Reich all over again," intoned Cosell.

Someone stuck his head in the window. "What's going on?" he shouted.

"They're killing Jews," Shirley Povich told him bitterly. "It's an old custom in this part of the world."

I remember the loudspeaker on the car crackling. "Hide your press credentials. Tell them you're coaches," it instructed. None of us could believe it. Lax security had let terrorists toting machine guns in, so they would make up for it by barring journalists.

We circled the village, finding it barricaded by security cops. The Germans had dressed them in these little pansy powder-blue suits and white caps to make them look like picnickers on the Wannsee but underneath they were the same tough brownshirts whose fathers had busted half the heads in Bavaria in their time.

We finally found one lightly guarded gate, one security man. Triola was chosen to distract him while the rest of us edged for the entrance, like kids sneaking into a matinee. Tony, who looks like the Matterhorn in a bush jacket, began screaming at the man, and we broke for the gate.

The scene inside was unbelievable. Rock music blared from a hundred cassettes, ice cream stands did a lively business, pin-swapping was endemic, gymnasts practiced back flips, runners jangled, couples danced.

It was hard to believe that a few hundred feet away in Building 31 on Connollystrasse, a handful of other young athletes sat bound and blindfolded on the floor, under the guns of eight terrorists. On the floor lay two colleagues, one dead, one dying.

The day passed in a miasma of colliding images. We were pursued by a hard-eyed stalker convinced that we were not the Thai rowing coaches we had said we were. At one point we found Will Grimsley, crack AP reporter, standing beneath the wired-in truck where the Munich chief of police was barking orders. We had the whole story right in front of us. In German. Unfortunately, none of us could speak it.

The rest of the day was spent in eluding our tormentor and summary ejection from the village. At one point, Povich and I were spirited into the Puerto Rican quarters, which looked right down on the balcony where one of the terrorists, wearing a white felt gangster hat, voiced his demands to the authorities collected below. To show you all the good this did us, we thought it was a woman. It wasn't.

Sometime after noon on that grim day, the German Minister of the Interior, Hans Dietrich Genscher, came up with a dramatic idea. If the kidnapers would agree to substitute German officials for their Israeli hostages, their demands would be met for airlift to safety and a huge ransom would be posted. The terrorists refused.

From our vantage point, we could see the German snipers crouched on the rooftops around the compound, waiting for the orders to shoot. Unfortunately, on TV, so could the terrorists. It was the first time a hijacking had been televised live. All over the world. People in Dubuque had a better idea what was going on than guys on the scene.

From Israel, Prime Minister Golda Meir had reiterated that there would be no dealing with terrorists. Their demands to empty the jails of their convicted colleagues fell on deaf ears. The ball was in West Germany's court. Bonn was profoundly embarrassed. They could almost hear Hitler's mocking laughter.

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