HOUSTON — Mike Adams was already asleep when his father-in-law rapped on the bedroom door. Something bad is happening, he said. A late-night newscast had just flashed the bulletin that Iraqi forces had crossed the border and were moving into Kuwait.
For Adams, the news could not have been more chilling. He lived in Kuwait city with his wife and two children and was in Houston only because he and his family were on home leave. But his people--those who worked for him on two refinery projects--were still back there. Adams went to the telephone. Over and over and over he dialed his office in Kuwait. Once the number actually rang, but there was no answer.
At dawn, Adams dressed and headed for the home office here of the M. W. Kellogg Co., which engineers and builds petrochemical projects worldwide.
What he did not know that morning was that, in the months to come, he would become enmeshed with dozens of others--in a rescue effort that would touch the lives of 565 people. It would involve suitcases full of cash and a network of people that spanned 10 countries. There would be episodes of abject fear and bravery and coincidence that would change lives.
This is how the people of M. W. Kellogg worked to get their people out of Kuwait and Iraq in the wake of the Aug. 2 invasion. Some things still aren't talked about for fear of endangering those who remain behind. But most of the facts are available.
Funny how circumstance can change lives so quickly. Peter McLeod, a London-based Kellogg employee, had spent the last two years overseeing the building of a fertilizer plant near the Iraqi town of Baiji, about four hours' drive north of Baghdad. The project had ended in June, and the 69 American and British workers had long since gone.
But there had been technical troubles at the plant, and McLeod was called to go back in to solve them. With him was Jack Stewart, 68, an American engineer. Their plane landed in Baghdad on July 30. When the Iraqis invaded Kuwait three days later, McLeod was still trying to retrieve his lost suitcase from the airport.
Bill Mills was in Kuwait city. He was the office manager, No. 2 in command behind Mike Adams for the Kellogg Co. and the boss during Adams' home leave in Houston. At 62, he had traveled the world for Kellogg. Mills had seen crises before. He had been working in Iran during the 1979 Islamic revolution, and in 1968 had owned a vacation house on the island of Cyprus that was lost when Turkey invaded. People used to joke that they wanted to know where Mills was going next so they could ask to be transferred someplace else.
When the Iraqis rolled in that morning, there was fear, to be sure. But there was no real panic for Mills or his Iranian-born wife, Kadijan. In telex messages on the day of the invasion--the only contact for weeks to come--Mills told Kellogg officials in matter-of-fact terms that he was sending employees home early because he did not want them out after dark.
"We are still not facing any danger as we can determine," he wrote. "My greatest worry at the present time is diesel fuel for our camp generators. Thanks for your offer for help, but there is nothing much to be done except hope that I can find diesel fuel and bread. Just been advised there is a curfew starting at 6 p.m. Bye-bye."
Then came weeks of silence. In Houston, the days without new information passed slowly. A company crisis team was pulled together, and the telex was manned round-the-clock in case Mills could get through. McLeod, in Iraq, had not been heard from at all.
In the interim, decisions were made. One was that the company's 600 employees from third countries--most of them Indian and Filipino--would not be abandoned. The second was that any kind of dramatic rescue attempt was unworkable. It was, said Kellogg Vice President David Bartlett, difficult to come to grips with that reality.
"Your first instinct is to see if you can become a hero," Bartlett said. "Then you revert to the fact that these are experienced, disciplined, tough people on the ground, and all you can do is provide them with the information and resources so they can take care of themselves."
Adams continued to phone Kuwait for the next two weeks after the invasion. He would call the dozen or so numbers he knew in Kuwait, hoping someone would pick up the phone. Nothing. The company's first break came Aug. 17, when a call came in from an employee who had made his way south to Saudi Arabia. He said he thought many employees were heading toward the Saudi border to escape. Adams asked for permission to fly there and see if he could set up communication with Kuwait city. When he left Houston on Aug. 18--after serious string-pulling to get a visa in one day--Adams carried $50,000 in cash.