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COLUMN ONE : How Four Hostages Survived : Teacher, banker, architect and weapons expert--theirs is a story of despair and ingenuity. Now safe at home, they recall the fear and the horror.

December 22, 1990|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The uncertainty of it all, now that was the worst of it. Sitting and waiting for . . . what?

Listening to the shortwave radios and hearing about the massive American military buildup in the desert. Being held prisoner at Iraqi military installations and wondering if the bombs really would drop. Waiting in Kuwait city apartments, listening for the knock at the door that would mean an escort north to Baghdad and . . . what?

No one knew. No one could predict. The wily Saddam Hussein certainly wasn't going to show his hand until the right moment. And so they waited, these hostages and those in hiding, and waited some more.

In the darkest of times, they were seized by the kind of despair that captivity and the feeling of abandonment can bring. What the hell was George Bush doing, anyway?

So it went, day after day, until that wonderful moment in December when they dared to hope that Hussein spoke the truth when he said they could all go home.

And then came that moment when hope becomes reality. The jet engines roared and the wheels lifted off the runway, headed first for Europe, then home. They are all back now, at least all those who wanted to leave. They are sorting out their lives and Christmas shopping and making up for lost time.

Talmadge Ledford is with his family in New Hampshire, and Paul Pawlowski is with his family in Boston. Will Van Dorp is at home in Ft. Wayne, Ind., and William Van Ry is with his family and parents in Ft. Collins, Colo. Guided missile expert. Architect. English teacher. Bank officer.

A diverse lot. They did not know each other. But their common bond was Kuwait city on Aug. 2, the day of the Iraqi tanks. They became a part of the largest hostage episode in modern times, one of the reasons President Bush said he was willing to go to war.

Each knew, at one time or another, that the wrong decision could mean danger and even death. Each took a different path. Two ended up as Iraqi prisoners. Two decided to remain in hiding.

None of the four had thought this could happen in Kuwait city, with its wide seaside boulevards and high-rises that oil had built. Here, hundreds of thousands of foreigners, including many Americans, helped Kuwait operate perhaps the richest spot on the planet. True, Hussein had been warning the Kuwaitis about producing too much oil, which drove down prices and hurt his struggling postwar economy. But an invasion, after warring so long with Iran?

So the first hours of the first day that Iraq swallowed Kuwait had a dreamlike quality to them, a kind of otherworldliness spawned by surprise and fear. Yet the people who lived through them, and the days to come, also speak with the vividness reserved for times when the adrenalin is pumping and the mind becomes a movie camera.

Van Ry and Ledford first heard of the invasion by telephone, Van Ry from a friend and Ledford from his Kuwait office. Van Dorp and Pawlowski heard noises that made them wonder what was going on outside. For Van Dorp, it was an explosion he thought had occurred on a ship passing by his seaside apartment; for Pawlowski, it was heavy trucks moving through the streets, awakening him at 5:30 a.m.

Van Dorp watched in fascination as Iraqi jets made wide swings out over the Persian Gulf before coming in low for another rocket attack two miles down the coast. From his seventh-floor balcony, he saw smoke and fire belch from the target and remembers feeling that, somehow, his life was being violated.

Ledford, the recently arrived manager for Raytheon Gulf Systems Co.--which maintained an American-made guided missile system--raced to his office and began emptying files on government projects and military operations. He stored them in boxes and hid them away. His wife, Clairanne, called from New Hampshire. It would be the last time they would talk to each other for 96 days.

Pawlowski and his wife, Ingrid, spent the day wondering what to do as they listened to nearby small-arms fire and tank exchanges. Should they make a run for the desert? A huge explosion blew out two large windows of their villa, the first event since the shooting started that had frightened their 7-year-old daughter, Tess. And in his diary of that day, Pawlowski wrote: "Is this a bad dream--will we wake up tomorrow and find out that this was a bad dream?"

Van Ry, the banker, drove to warn a friend who had no telephone. While they were returning, he stopped to buy a newspaper in which there was an account of negotiations between Kuwait and Iraq. The story assured readers that there would be no more problems between the two countries.

Over the story was this headline: "It's Over."

Throughout the day, people in Van Ry's apartment building prepared for what they were sure would be an evacuation of foreigners. In the afternoon, they stood on the rooftop and watched tank battles and helicopters firing rockets. They did that until a building down the street was hit with mortar and machine-gun fire.

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