It was a clear morning. We were cooped up in the room listening to machine-gun exchanges. The sound of bullets smattering against the side of the building repeatedly sent us ducking away from the window.
Then the firing tapered off a bit. We, again cautiously, approached the window to check through venetian blinds. As I turned away for a moment, we heard a loud crack and a groan. Everyone hit the floor again. I looked back and saw Joe Alex Morris slumping behind me.
A single shot, apparently astray, had caught him full in the chest.
"Monsieur is dead," said an Iranian air force officer in broken French.
Morris died in what may have been the first shots of the Iranian civil war.
It was shortly before dawn when we set off in a taxi from our hotel to Doshan Tapeh air base on the edge of Tehran to check reports of a clash there between the members of the Imperial Guard, the elite fighting force loyal to the shah, and air force cadets supporting opposition leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
As we approached the base, the remanis of fiery street barricades bore witness to the fight the night before. But along the southern edge of the base things seemed normal. Civilian mem and women were rushing to work inside the compound, flashing special identity cards at the main entrance.
At that point we were joined by two other American journalists. Arthur Higbee of United Press Interantional and Ray Mosely of the Chicago Tribune, who had arrived in a separate taxi.
We were turned back at the entrance, despite the best efforts by Morris, whose easygoing straightforward manner often worked wonders in similar situations. We went to the northern side of the base to the entrance of the Air Training Command section, where we stumbled upon a demonstration.
About 100 people, mostly civilians but including some air force cadets, were chanting slogans in support of Khomeini. In the confusion, all four of us got through a gate by showing press cards. Led by Joe Alex, we went into a building to look for the air cadet commander, but were escorted out by a captain who said we needed passes.
Then shooting broke out outside the main gate, apparently by soldiers trying to disperse demonstrators. We were told the soldiers were from the crack "Javidan" (Immortals) division of the Imperial Guard. Shooting seemed to be aimed in the air.
All four of us went back out the gate and started walking up the street toward our waiting taxis. At an intersection another crowd of demonstrators had gathered and was shouting at the soldiers.
Suddenly, the situation inside the compound behind us seemed to deteriorate and the dozen or so soldiers at the gate loosed long bursts into the air. Ahead of us, the demonstrators and the other troops were facing off.
Cadets inside the compound started throwing blocks and bricks at the soldiers outside. Some leveled their guns and opened fire through the gate.
We ran into a building between the two groups of soldiers at either end of the street, and raced up to a second floor photo shop which had a telephone and a window above the street.
We saw two soldiers hit in the leg in the street just blow the window. They were carried off by comrades.
The shooting, which erupted at about 8:15 at a.m., drove the guardsmen back, and the cadets came running out of the compound and set fire to an army jeep. Civilians, mostly youths, joined the cadets.
Then the Imperial Guardsmen brought a truck with a heavy 50-calibre machine gun mounted at the rear and backed it down the street toward the main gate, firing all the way. We had been watching the action through venetian blinds.
It was at this point that Morris was hit. Higbee knelt over him while I called for help and telephoned the hotel to send an ambulance.
Using a door as a stretcher, a couple of cadets arrived and helped Higbee carry Joe's body down the stairs and back to the base where he was taken to the air force hospital, we learned later. He was pronounced dead on arrival. Indeed, it seemed that he had been killed instantly.
Then, after a few more minutes, Imperial Guard reinforcements arrived and a fierce house-to-house battle began. Mosely and I dashed back into the house and took cover in the photo shop.
Intense firing with automatic rifles and heavy machine guns went on for more than an hour, much of it swirling around the building where we had sought refuge.
I saw cadets armed with G3s running up and down the stairs. When the shooting finally died down somewhat I foolowed them up to the roof. There were eight cadets crouching on the flat rooftop.
I was again amazed that the airmen had control of the area in a wide radius. There were civilians and airmen on rooftops all around for several blocks. An army truck was burning on the main avenue. A dozen other fires in the neighborhood belched black smoke into the clear skies. People were putting up street barricades and helping to sandbag rooftop positions. Many civilians carried rifles and pistols.
The airmed had beaten back the famed Imperial Guard. Their faces showed their determination to resist the ground forces. The cadets appeared confident and committed to their cause. It was an atmospherr of civil war.
Mosely, the two taxi drivers and I then left the building on foot -- both cars had punctured tires -- and headed east. We saw youths busy making molotov cocktails. Civilians ran up and down the street with automatic rifles, pistols, knives, clubs, and any other kind of weapons they could lay their hands on.
One man brandished an axe. I saw a woman in a black full length veil showing a small boy how to light a molotov cocktail and throw it.
Everywhere, people were digging up earth and filling sandbags to fortify gun positions or make barricades.
Toward the eastern end of the base we were taken to a house when firing resumed.
After an interval, civilians reappeared in the streets. We saw a column of British-made Chieftain tanks belonging to the Imperial Guard moving toward the base along a main avenue. Civilians and air force men opened fire on them from rooftops.
I saw small but angry mob of civilians escort at least three captured guardsmen back toward the base, where they to be imprisoned, we were told.
We spent about six hours caught in the area, before we returned to the hotel.
This may well have been the first day of the Iranian civil war. The experience of Lebanon has shown that once the blood lust is up these things are difficult to stop. Unless the intermilitary fighting is halted at once, the conflict certainly risks getting worse.
But for me, this will also remain the day that my friend and colleague Joe Alex Morris was killed. I was only one of his many friends -- he was the most engaging and likeable of men and a dedicated reporter.
The son of a journalist, he once told me that his father christened him Joe Alex Morris Jr. so that his byline would fit in a newspaper column.
For me Joe Alex Morris was more than a good reporter and more than a friend. Perhaps because of our age difference -- he was 51, and I am 26 -- I always felt that he treared me with a paternalistic affection he might have shown a son and that is the kind of loss I feel.