James Haack was talking to his base camp from his oil rig in the middle of Kuwait around 5:30 a.m. last Thursday when he heard it: THUMP, THUMP, THUMP, far in the distance. His office windows flexed to the beat. Over the morning the booming would grow louder as Iraqi divisions streamed into the tiny desert kingdom.
Black plumes of smoke rose far away, but Haack, 47, was unsure if they were evidence of an attack or merely oil well fires that frequently dot the Persian Gulf horizon, he recalled in an interview yesterday.
He telephoned another rig bestriding the Iraq-Kuwait border. No answer. At a different rig on the front line of the invasion, a Kuwaiti answered and told Haack that two Americans had been taken away by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's troops. They were among 11 oil workers who were the first of 39 U.S. citizens captured by the Iraqis.
Ten days into his first Middle East job, the 30-year veteran oil worker from Lafayette, La., was in the middle of a geopolitical flashpoint, the first crisis of the post-Cold War era.
In the mid-1970s, Haack escaped a coup attempt in Nigeria, but the explosive Middle East was different with its reputation for being volatile.
"It's kept a lot of people away. It kept me away for a long time," Haack said from Houston. "Then I decided that Kuwait was safe."
Around noon on the day of the attack, Iraqi warplanes flew in low, buzzing by Haack's 150-foot-tall oil derrick before unleashing a volley of fire at a distant air base.
"I decided maybe we're not going to be lucky forever," he said. "Everyone was very scared at that point."
Then an Iraqi plane dropped a bomb 100 yards from Haack and other oil workers. No one was injured.
At about 5 p.m., soon after the phone lines went dead, Haack said he, another American and three other Westerners bolted for the Saudi Arabian border, taking back roads to avoid the Iraqis.
The rest of the rig crew, several dozen men from Arab and other nations, decided to stay; they thought it would be over in a day or so, Haack said.
At the border, Kuwaiti forces stopped Haack's group and made them leave their Kuwait Oil Co. car. They walked about three miles before encountering waiting officials, Haack said.
Another group of Haack's co-workers got out Friday, passing thousands of Iraqi troops who, the men said, merely waved.
Two Americans escaped from Kuwait Monday but a third apparently took a wrong turn and drove toward an Iraqi military unit, Haack said company sources told him yesterday.
Haack, who was working for Texas-based OGE Drilling Inc., arrived in the United States Sunday evening and was debriefed in Houston by U.S. officials before heading for home today.
"We were totally surprised," Haack said of the attack. He said Iraqi troops came to one of the front-line rigs last week during Saddam's muscle-flexing buildup asking for food and water. "They were friendly and they left."