After several aborted escape efforts, dozens of employees of American Telephone & Telegraph Co. succeeded in leaving Kuwait with help from a special crisis center set up by the company thousands of miles away, AT&T officials said yesterday.
The story of the exodus of AT&T's workers, among them many Americans, from Kuwait into Saudi Arabia and then home is the first detailed account of how a major American corporation mobilized to handle the crisis in the Persian Gulf and how workers actually made their way to safety in car caravans that snaked through the desert for 20 hours.
Although other American companies such as Boeing Co. and Westinghouse Electric Corp. have made it possible for the dependents of employees to leave neighboring countries, detailed information on the fate of American workers in Kuwait and Iraq has been kept confidential by companies that fear for their safety.
The evacuation of the AT&T employees was the most dramatic test yet of the special situation room and crisis management center in suburban New Jersey that the company created two years ago to communicate with employees during periods of turmoil and to assist them in getting to safety.
At 3:30 a.m. EDT on the day of the invasion, the crisis network started crackling with calls, the first one going out to R. Bruce Barr, AT&T's director of auditing and security. Barr said in a telephone interview yesterday that by 4 a.m., he had activated the crisis center, which is equipped with maps, communications equipment, telephones and computers. Since then, the operation has run around the clock, monitoring the situation in the Middle East and communicating with families of employees.
A telephone line was left open to a location in Kuwait City from which most AT&T employees could be contacted. Employees were called every hour. Contact was made seven and eight times a day with Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where the company has its regional headquarters for the Middle East.
Besides Americans, there were Canadians, Britons, Dutch, Filipinos and a Sri Lankan working in Kuwait for AT&T on various communications projects. The company also has several hundred employees in Saudi Arabia, with 30 nationalities represented there.
The company said a small number of AT&T employees remains in Kuwait and Iraq along with the thousands of Westerners who are trapped there and that the last indirect contact with them was last week.
Telephone service to Kuwait was cut the day after the invasion. About 1,000 calls a day are coming out of Iraq to the United States, company officials said, but few are getting through to Iraq. The company said 87 circuits are being added to Saudi Arabia.
The crisis center became the conduit for the company's calls into the war zone and to Riyadh, as well as the "psychological lifeline" for employees caught up in the crisis. When telephone service broke down, as it did shortly after Kuwait was invaded, Barr said the company relied on an "indirect communications channel."
Barr said managers in the crisis center talked over the telephone in general terms to communicate plans about getting to safety or evacuating employees. Then the parties on the line would "validate" to see if they understood each other.
"Very quickly, we decided to get them out in the lowest-risk manner we could," Barr said. "They started making attempts midweek of the first week after the invasion."
Barr said the company did not order people to leave and employees in Kuwait caucused about whether to pursue an escape.
They "piled into cars, but were turned back politely and firmly by Iraqi soldiers," he said.
Several succeeding attempts also failed and some employees lost their resolve to leave. They also heard stories about the failed attempts of others to leave.
The company tried again. Local assistance was enlisted. Routes out of the city were revised, as were departure times. Finally, about two-thirds of the employees made it into the desert in caravans of eight to 10 cars.
When they reached safety, "We had them stay overnight in an AT&T location in Riyadh," Barr said. "They were exhausted. They were in turmoil trying to digest the success of their escape."
There also were fears about the future of their colleagues who were still in Kuwait. Those who did not go out in the first expedition "saw things were heating up and that the status quo was becoming more risky," Barr said.
A week later, they too left, traveling by caravan with local assistance. Like the group that went before them, they had emergency medical instructions from the company and information on what supplies to bring.
Barr said the second group that succeeded in escaping encountered an Iraqi tank that ended up helping to pull one of the cars out the sand. The Iraqi soldiers then pointed the way to the border.
Eventually, many of the employees who left Kuwait were flown to Frankfurt, where they were met by AT&T personnel and counseled by a person from the company's medical department, who is trained in post-trauma stress disorders.
Some of the employees went directly home, Barr said, and they were counseled by phone.
Before official communications were cut with Kuwait, AT&T employees were communicating their fear to the crisis center in the aftermath of the invasion.
"The group encountered bodies in the street and reports that women friends had been raped. These people were quite traumatized," Barr said.
"The country manager told me anxiety was escalating geometrically ... because troops and tanks were massing," Barr said.
The crisis center contacted the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait, which sent a security officer to tell the employees that they were in a staging area for the troops and not to worry.
In dealing with the Kuwait crisis, Barr drew on earlier experience from recent crises that involved AT&T employees in China, the Philippines and Panama. The company operates in 37 countries with 18,000 people on foreign assignments.
During the coup in Manila last year, Barr, who used to be an investor relations manager for AT&T, found himself helping negotiate a middle-of-the-night cease-fire outside the home of the company's country manager and his wife, who found three government tanks in their back yard firing on rebel positions.
Between the company, the State Department and the U.S. Embassy a short cease-fire was arranged. An armored car came in and the couple was taken to a safe destination elsewhere in the city. Shooting resumed.
The employees' flight out of Kuwait illustrates how multinational companies can get caught up in international crises. Companies also have come to learn that it is largely up to them to devise and execute plans to protect their employees as embassies strain to protect American tourists, students and others who have no other point of contact.
"The fact is that AT&T, like other individuals and institutions, has come to grips with basic fact that wherever one travels or works in this country or abroad, there can be risks that involve our employees. We have to prepare for every contingency to look out for the welfare of those people who are Americans and the citizens of many countries," said Herb Linnen, director of media relations for AT&T.