War broke out during the network evening news last night. The timing was eerily convenient.

ABC News was first to report to viewers that armed conflict had erupted in the skies over Iraq. Moments after reporter Gary Shepard, by telephone line from Baghdad, told anchor Peter Jennings there was "absolutely nothing happening here," he reported hearing explosions and seeing tracer fire in the sky.

"There's obviously an air raid underway right now," Shepard told Jennings about six minutes into ABC's "World News Tonight."

CNN, the all-news cable network, was next to report the onset of hostilities in dramatic phone broadcasts by reporters John Holliman, Peter Arnett and Bernard Shaw, all at the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad.

Holliman could not hear CNN headquarters in Atlanta and didn't know if he was on the air when the battle began. Viewers, and anchor David French, heard Holliman's voice: "Hello, Atlanta, Atlanta, this is Holliman... . The skies of Baghdad have just been filled up with the sound of gunfire tonight."

At 6:40 p.m. -- 2:40 a.m. in Baghdad -- Holliman held a microphone out the window so CNN viewers could hear the bomb blasts for themselves. And yet at this point, confusion still reigned. Arnett referred to "the attack, if there is an attack," and on ABC Jennings told viewers, "We believe that something is going on in Iraq. We know there is something going on in Iraq. We do not know what."

On NBC, Tom Aspell, also by phone from Baghdad, told anchor Tom Brokaw, "We have not heard any incoming yet ... so perhaps this is a false alarm" -- even as CNN's Wolf Blitzer, from the Pentagon, was saying, "It would appear to be the real thing."

CBS News was severely crippled in its coverage and was the last to report the attack. Network sources said contact with Allen Pizzey, the CBS reporter in Baghdad, was lost just moments before "The CBS Evening News" went on the air at 6:30. Anchor Dan Rather was left stranded. CBS was the only network not to have live telephone reports from the Iraqi capital.

But at 7:05 Rather did tell his viewers, "It's clear war has begun in the Middle East," and about a minute later White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater appeared live on all networks to declare, "The liberation of Kuwait has begun" and to announce the launch of the newly named Operation Desert Storm.

Although CBS lagged embarrassingly behind the other networks, Rather was the only anchor to show emotion in reporting what could become a global catastrophe. When announcing that war had broken out, Rather said, "It always brings a lump to your throat," and there clearly was a lump in his. Later, talking about fighter pilots who man the F-15 Eagles believed to be doing the bombing, Rather choked up and his eyes were moist when he said, "There are people, there are men, in those aircraft."

Meanwhile, there were dramatic moments in Saudi Arabia as well. Shortly before 7:30, correspondent Charles Jaco, while on the air for CNN, held up the gas mask he had been issued and said air raid sirens were sounding. Suddenly, in the middle of a sentence, the signal went dead and Jaco vanished. French told viewers not to be alarmed and that Jaco was not necessarily in jeopardy. A few seconds later, Rather invited viewers to listen to the chilling sounds of air raid sirens as they came into CBS by phone line from Riyadh.

For some curious reason, Channel 9, the CBS affiliate in Washington, refused to join the network at 6:44 when CBS special coverage began, clinging instead to such features as Glenn Brenner's funny, funny sports report. At one point Channel 9 picked up a feed from CNN; Channel 5, the Fox affiliate, started airing the CNN feed at about the same time and kept it on the air through the early evening. CNN clearly was doing a remarkable job of reporting a frightening story.