Brian Williams’ Tales About Gangs and Riding Katyusha Rockets

Matt Vespa
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Posted: Feb 10, 2015 8:15 AM
Brian Williams’ Tales About Gangs and Riding Katyusha Rockets

As Brian Williams heads into the bunker, there’s more on his Katrina and 2006 Lebanon War coverage. For starters, while there may have been circumstantial evidence to suggest that Mr. Williams saw floating bodies–there was flooding around his hotel in the French Quarter–there’s been some serious questions raised about his account of events ever since Chinook-gate broke. He said he saw a man commit suicide, got dysentery, and now his hotel was “overrun” by gangs during the whole dysenteric ordeal. While the New Orleans Advocate said that most of these claims are unverifiable, the former general manager of the Ritz-Carlton, Williams’ hotel at the time, said there were no floating bodies:

“There is no physical way the water was deep enough for a body to float in,” Myra deGersdorff told The Times-Picayune on Sunday.

Skeptics have said the French Quarter remained relatively dry after the hurricane hit because it sits on higher ground — while others have insisted that the streets around the Ritz, which is technically one block away from that neighborhood, did flood.

But deGersdorff insisted that she never saw any bodies floating by the posh hotel — though its underground basement briefly flooded. The first floor was under 6 to 8 inches of water, she said.

“I don’t know what Brian Williams saw or didn’t see, but I for sure didn’t see any bodies floating,” deGersdorff said. Other hotel employees didn’t spot any bodies either, she added.

Williams has spoken about his trials and tribulations in covering Katrina in a TV interview and at least two book authors, according to Terrence McCoy of the Washington Post. Douglas Brinkley, who wrote “The Great Deluge,” wrote about the Williams account, noting that the anchor had accidentally ingested sewer water, which gave him dysentery. Williams felt the illness take hold, rushing back to the hotel. He was able to make it back, but someone left him on a mattress in the dark. He was feverish, “delirious,” and unable to eat food. Just outside the hotel, gangs were brandishing firearms. Hotel staff shut down the hotel for defense. Someone, as Williams put it, tried to stick an IV into him, but he declined. He said he couldn’t “pull rank” by accepting medicine when there were other folks in worse shape, but he was hurting. Somehow he managed to get outside the hotel where he wadded through two feet of water only to encounter the gangs, who were ready to “smash and grab” the vehicle Williams and his news crew had decided to use for their exit. Louisiana National Guardsmen came to deter the possible violent confrontation. By this time, Williams could barely stand, according to Brinkley’s account. They were on their own, like Mad Max Rockatansky, and Williams somehow finished his news broadcasts.

Well, that’s not what he told reporter Judith Sylvester:

In this version, Williams didn’t bed down in a stairwell when he came down with dysentery. He had a battery-powered TV that he watched from his eighth-floor Ritz-Carlton room when the hotel became “uninhabitable,” according to Sylvester.

As Sylvester described Williams’s story, the “Ritz-Carlton soon became a gang target.” She wrote that Williams said he spent one night on his hotel room floor, lying between the window and bed so it would look like the room was unoccupied. “You’d hear young, kind-of-thuggish kids walking about and down the hall all night,” Williams said. “It was terrible. I’m not sure which night I decided to get out of there.”

By the time Williams was interviewed about the experience by Tom Brokaw last year at a Columbia Journalism School event, he claimed “our hotel was overrun with gangs.”

Yeah, the people who stayed at the hotel around the same time don’t remember any of this:

In September 2005, the Times-Picayune reported that numerous stories of violence and gunfire had been wildly exaggerated in the days following Katrina. Rumor begat rumor. New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass said he had a perfect anecdote to illustrate that effect.

“He heard ‘some civilians’ talking about how a band of armed thugs had invaded the Ritz-Carlton hotel and started raping women — including his 24-year-old daughter, who stayed there through the storm,” the New Orleans paper reported. “He rushed to the scene only to find that although a group of men had tried to enter the hotel, they weren’t armed and were easily turned back by police.”

Then another man named Richard Rhodes who stayed at the Ritz as well said he didn’t remember any gangs, telling the New Orleans Advocate that Williams had exaggerated. The hotel had allowed employee families to bunker down. “There was a kind of criminal element that had gotten in, and somebody had worked there and they brought their family,” Rhodes told the paper. “They were leaving the doors open, and other people were trying to come. Two off-duty police officers were running around keeping the peace. There were scary moments, but criminal gangs? That’s crazy.”

A local activist named Leo Watermeier said much the same to the Guardian. He said there weren’t any gangs. “People were afraid that was the case,” he said. “I don’t think that really was the situation. Once darkness came, that was frightening. Just because it was pitch-black. And you felt vulnerable. … But I didn’t see anything.”

McCoy is fair. It’s possible all of this could have happened. It’s also possible that this is another example of what the American Journalism Review called “myth-making in New Orleans.”

And, what about the 2006 Lebanon War tale and the rockets beneath his helicopter? Via WaPo:

There were Katyusha rockets passing just beneath the helicopter I was riding in,” he told a student interviewer from Fairfield (Conn.) University that year.

But Williams didn’t mention that in his own account of the helicopter trip, written on an NBC News blog in July the previous year.

In that version, he was in a Blackhawk helicopter “at 1,500 feet,” accompanied by “a high-ranking general in the Israeli Defense Forces” and that rocket fire preceded them rather than passed beneath them.

Williams wrote that the pilot reported “some shelling right now . . . They landed about 30 seconds ago.”

Williams wrote that he noticed “trails of smoke and dust” where rockets had landed in the countryside.

“Then,” he wrote, “I noticed something out the window. From a distance of six miles, I witnessed a rocket launch. A rising trail of smoke, then a second rocket launch, an orange flash and more smoke — as a rocket heads off toward Israel.”

The description suggests that Williams’s helicopter was near the rockets but does not claim the weapons were flying “just beneath” his airborne vehicle.

The anchorman offered more details a few weeks later in August 2006, during an appearance on “The Daily Show.”

“Here’s a view of rockets I have never seen, passing underneath us, 1,500 feet beneath us. And we’ve got the gunner doors on this thing, and I’m saying to the general, some four-star: ‘It wouldn’t take much for them to adjust the aim and try to do a ring toss right through our open doors, would it?’ ”

He ended the interview by telling Stewart, “Anytime you want to cross over to the other side, baby, travel with me.”

To borrow a term from Gawker, how did Brian Williams become the “Human Centipede” of journalism? There is a history of him embellishing or conflating the original story.

In an interview with Travis Tritten of Stars and Stripes, Williams repeats the brain fart defense for botching the Chinook story. Here’s a portion of the interview where Tritten asks about the distance between the Chinooks that were attacked and the group of Chinooks that Williams was on that was allegedly an hour behind the attached column:

BRIAN WILLIAMS: And that’s the first I’ve heard of that. I did not think we were in trail by that far. I think that’s probably a good question for Tim [Ed.: Terpak, a retired soldier, was featured in the broadcast where Williams falsely claimed to be on the attacked Chinook], who I now learn witnessed the overflight. But I could not see in front of us and I thought we were just in one flotilla, for lack of a better word. That’s the first time I’ve heard that.

TRAVIS TRITTEN: So, you are going to provide that explanation to these guys [posted last week on Facebook] that you had read to me —

WILLIAMS: Yeah.

TRITTEN: Are you guys going to do anything on the air to kind of correct the record?

WILLIAMS: I don’t know; I’ll talk to my boss. I am certainly willing. I did not, again … It’s very basic I would not have chosen to make this mistake. I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft from the other. The fact is, I remember three aircraft going down. I was on one of them. An additional aircraft aside from ours took an RPG through the rear housing above the ramp. And it was our first engagement of the war, a trip that eventually brought me to downtown Baghdad. And this is what I said to you earlier, my war experience in no way matches that of the professionals soldiers we were traveling with, and though we certainly had a variety of experiences from the airport road into Baghdad to Baghdad itself, after Col. Perkins led his thunder run. [Ed.: Col. David Perkins was commander of the 3rd Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade.]

(Williams asks to go off the record, briefly, then goes back on the record.)

I just set out to call attention and honor a 23-year returning Army veteran with three Bronze stars, and all who serve with him and are still over there in uniform. I did not set out to in any way change the chronicle of what happened to us.

TRITTEN: I know a lot of these guys are concerned about this reflecting on Terpak and I’m just wondering if you spoke with him. If you had a conversation about this.

WILLIAMS: Well, we’ve talked about what happened but not about any — there’s anger being expressed towards him?

TRITTEN: No, the guys who I talked to today about you being on the aircraft that was hit were saying, ‘You know, we don’t want this to reflect badly on Terpak.’

WILLIAMS: That is my total goal here.

TRITTEN: So, I am just wondering if you had discussed this with Terpak, this kind of controversy and what these guys have come out and said.

WILLIAMS: I have expressed my frustration that this is in some way going to take, going to soil what I attempted to do for him. Yes, I am very frustrated by this. Look, I deal with a lot of veterans groups and a lot of veterans. I’ve made it my business since we came back from OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom] and because I didn’t serve myself -- I’m the son of a U.S. Army captain in the World War II era -- and I just, anything that takes attention away from him [Terpak], anything that ends up not honoring the veterans is a failure on my part. This is about honoring the people I saw over there. As I’ve said a million times publicly, [they are] the best team we’ve ever fielded.

TRITTEN: Brian, again, thank you so much. Those are all the questions I have. Was there anything else you want to add?

WILLIAMS: No, I know it sounds outlandish. There is nothing else I can think of.

Williams allegedly skipped out of a Medal of Honor event to appear on Saturday Night Live in 2006.