by Scott Savitt
Saturday June 3, 1989 8 p.m.
It’s still light outside. I haven’t slept in 48 hours. I feel like I’m moving in slow motion. All I want to do is lie down, but I know I have to keep working.
The office telephone rings. UPI bureau chief David Schweisberg picks it up then barks, “Savitt, it’s your girlfriend.” Dede and the U.S. ambassador’s wife Mrs. Bette Bao Lord are in the CBS headquarters. The office takes up the entire tenth floor of the Shangri-La Hotel in the northwest university district.
“Wei! Wei! (Hey! Hey!)” I grunt the standard Chinese telephone greeting to try to lighten the mood with humor.
“Don’t joke,” Dede says. “You have to get to the west end of Chang’an (the Avenue of Eternal Peace) right away. The troops and tanks are moving. They have orders to clear Tiananmen Square before dawn.”
“Thanks for your help,” I add and hear her tell me: “Be careful” as I hang up.
I grab my camera bag and motorcycle helmet, shove my brick-sized cellular telephone into the pocket of my dad’s old army jacket I wear for good luck, and call out: “The troops are moving, I’m heading west.”
“Keep your phone on,” I hear Schweisberg say as I sprint out the door.
I hop on my motorcycle, kick start the engine and speed out the front gate of the diplomatic compound. It’s 10 km. (6.2 miles) to the west end of the city. I’ve made the ride in less than 15 minutes with no traffic. But now the streets are packed with people moving concrete lane dividers into the roadway to block the troops from entering the city.
No car can get through this. Other journalists are going to have a hard time getting to the front line.
Public loudspeakers at every intersection repeat the martial law warning: “Citizens are forbidden to enter the streets or Tiananmen Square. Violators will be responsible for their own fate. Should anyone ignore this order, the martial law troops, people’s armed police and public security officers will use whatever means necessary to enforce it.”
I steer into the bike lane and weave through the crowds heading for Tiananmen.
The Square is packed with people. I never knew how festive a revolt could be. People are smiling, laughing and talking about their hopes for the future. But I see in their eyes fierce determination to hold the heart of the city through the night.
I ride past the portrait of Chairman Mao hanging above the Gate of Heavenly Peace. His suspicious eyes seem to follow me. As I leave the Square the number of people in the street thins out. I veer back onto the main road and pick up speed. The landmarks tick by: Tiananmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace) West Road. Xinhua (New China) Gate. Liubukou (Six Ministries Street Mouth). Xidan (West Monumental Arch). Minzu Gong (National Minorities Palace). Fuxing (Glorious Revival) Gate—the entrance to the old Imperial city. Muxidi—the site of high officials’ residences, including the Communist Party Secretary’s chief of staff and his family. I finally arrive at Gongzhufen—“Tomb of the Princesses” 1—where the Third Ring road turns south toward the military camps where I know the tanks and troops are billeted.
It’s taken me almost an hour to get here. The sun has set and the sky is now completely dark. The grassy roundabout is filled with people standing in circles. Individuals move from group to group, gathering information and speculating about what the government is going to do. Contrary to the festive mood in the Square, this crowd is on edge.
I feel my cell phone vibrate and pull it out. It’s Dede.
“Where are you?”
“The troops and tanks are coming up the road toward you.”
“Thanks,” I say and shove the phone back into my pocket.
Mrs. Lord and Dede’s intelligence is again unerring. I ride my bike south with the lights out to avoid detection. I hear a low rumble grow louder, and as I come over a rise I see a line of battle tanks, armored personnel carriers, and thousands of soldiers with bayonet-tipped assault rifles coming toward me. It’s the most terrifying sight I’ve ever seen.
I whip my bike around and speed back toward the intersection.
“Dabing laile—The soldiers are coming!” I cry as loud as I can.
I hide my bike in a clump of bushes. I’m still wearing my motorcycle helmet, and my bandana covers my mouth and nose. Only my eyes are visible, no one can see I’m a foreigner. Suddenly anti-riot troops in black uniforms with metal shields and steel helmets pour into the roundabout from all sides. People start running. I hear the thud of wooden truncheons smacking skulls.
“Faxisi—Fascists!” “Gou—Dogs!” “Chusheng—Beasts!” onlookers yell. Then the people start fighting back. Young men break sidewalk flagstones into jagged chunks and throw them at the soldiers.
A young riot trooper gets trapped against a metal fence and pelted with bricks and stones until he falls to the ground. I run to help him, but can’t get close as the crowd closes in. They look like they’re beating him to death.
Then I hear the unmistakable sound of machine gun fire. Pop-pop-pop. Steady bursts of three shots that I know means the rifles are on semi-automatic. Red and green tracer bullets streak through the sky. It’s eerily beautiful. I can’t help thinking of the lines from the Star Spangled Banner: “And the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air.”
Suddenly a man next to me spins and falls to the ground. I see a red stain spread across his t-shirt. “Are they rubber bullets?” I ask a guy running by.
“Rubber bullets?! Fuck no, they’re live rounds.” He knows what he’s talking about, most people here do mandatory military training and are familiar with these weapons.
Then the tracer fire moves from over our heads directly into the crowd. People start falling all around me. I hear the ppppzzzzhhhh ppppzzzzhhhh ppppzzzzhhhh of high-velocity rifle bullets buzzing past my head. A tear gas canister explodes next to me and I fall to the ground. My eyes are tearing and burning. Gasping for air, I lie paralyzed on the pavement for several minutes. When I can finally see again, the tanks and troops are moving toward the next intersection Muxidi.
I call in the first confirmed death after 10 p.m. I can barely be heard above the din of gunshots.
“Dave,” I say when I hear my boss’s voice, “they’re firing into the crowd and a guy’s dead.”
“How do you know he’s dead?”
“Because his brains are splattered on the pavement.”
The phone cuts off.
A guy my age limps toward me. I see he’s shot in the upper leg. His pants are drenched with blood. I tell him I’ll take him to Fuxing Hospital, a mile away at Muxidi Bridge.
I pull my bike out of the bushes and help him straddle the seat. As he leans against me I feel his blood seep into my clothes. I speed off in the bike lane. The tanks and troops are advancing down the main road beside us less than 20 meters away. They’re firing into the crowd ahead. If they turn their guns sideways we’ll both be shot.
We pass bicycles and flatbed tricycles transporting the wounded.
I speed up to the hospital entrance, drop the kickstand and help the injured guy inside. The sight shocks me. The entrance corridor is filled with gunshot victims. Most aren’t being treated. Some are hooked up to IVs. A handful are covered with bloody white sheets, obviously dead.
“Jiuming—Help!” I yell.
A nurse wearing a surgical mask runs over and we ease the guy onto the floor.
“He needs to be treated!” I shout.
“No one’s available. The doctors are all operating on the worst injured. We aren’t prepared to handle this many wounded.”
I know from my Outward Bound wilderness survival training that the biggest danger of massive trauma is blood loss. If they don’t get transfused quickly the victim “bleeds out.” That’s what’s happening here. This hospital won’t have enough blood for all these people.
“How many wounded?” I ask the nurse.
“All the operating rooms are full. So is the taipingjian—rest-in-peace room.” Rest-in-peace room is the Chinese word for morgue. There must be scores injured and dead.
I step back through the bodies in the entryway. The stench of blood and open wounds sickens me.
But there’s nothing more I can do here. I should be out reporting.
I run outside, hop on my bike and take off after the tanks.
The carnage I just witnessed at Gongzhufen repeats itself at Muxidi. Anti-riot troops try to clear the intersection and are attacked by citizens throwing stones, bricks, bottles and flaming Molotov cocktails. The soldiers open fire again and all around me people drop to the ground bleeding.
“Get her to the hospital immediately or she’ll die,” I yell to a group carrying an injured young woman.