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NBC News anchor Brian Williams apologized Wednesday for repeatedly and wrongly claiming that he was in a Chinook helicopter that sustained a rocket attack during the first days of the 2003 Iraq war.
The apology came after the military publication Star and Stripes interviewed soldiers who were present for the incident and said Williams was not in the helicopter that took fire. What’s more, soldiers said, Williams’ helicopter wasn’t even part of the same formation. Williams arrived in a helicopter about an hour later that made a detour landing because of the sandstorm, not fire, soldiers said. (While Williams says his helicopter did not take fire, he maintains that he was in the same formation as the one that did.)
Williams’ version of that day in March 2003 evolved over 12 years and numerous tellings. Sometimes he said his helicopter was hit, sometimes he said it was another helicopter. Sometimes, he wasn’t clear.
March 26, 2003 - Williams’ original report indicated that a helicopter in front of his was hit:
From the transcript: "We are one of four Chinook helicopters flying north this morning, third in line. As we head toward the drop point the Iraqi landscape looks quiet. We can see a convoy of American troop carriers and supply vehicles heading north....Down below some civilians, seemingly happy to see us. But these soldiers have heard reports of Iraqis in civilian clothes firing on American troops. Indeed, just before we’re able to make our drop, radio traffic makes clear this routine mission is running into trouble. We quickly make our drop and then turn southwest. Suddenly, without knowing why, we learned we’ve been ordered to land in the desert. On the ground, we learn the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky."
September 2003: NBC publishes a book, "Operation Iraqi Freedom," in which they describe Williams’ experience, implying that his helicopter sustained fire:
Williams "ended up on the receiving end of an ambush directed at the 3rd Infantry Division. An army helicopter armada was delivering 17,000-lb. sections of a platoon bridget to Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad. The NBC team went along for the ride, occupying the third of four Chinook choppers.… The grenade entered the helicopter’s open tail, tore a hole in the fuselage, and grazed a crewman’s face, but did not detonate."
March 2005: According to CNN, Williams discussed the incident with late journalist Tim Russert on CNBC:
He said, "the helicopter in front of us was hit. A pickup truck stopped on the road, pulled a tarp back; a guy got up, fired an RPG, rocket-propelled grenade. These were farmers, or so they seemed. And it beautifully pierced the tail rotor of the Chinook in front of us."
Sept. 27, 2007 - Williams wrote a blog post recalling the incident, where it’s unclear if his helicopter was attacked:
"On one particular occasion, he talked me into going on a ‘day trip’ with an Army Reserve Unit -- a flotilla of four twin-rotor Chinook helicopters on a mission we couldn't discuss. Each chopper carried a heavy section of a military bridge, flying slowly and at only 100 feet above the desert terrain. We were headed to the Euphrates River. It was the bridge that, once assembled, would carry the Third Infantry Division north to Baghdad....Not long after Wayne's warning, some men on the ground fired an RPG through the tail rotor of the chopper flying in front of ours. There was small arms fire. A chopper pilot took a bullet through the earlobe. All four choppers dropped their heavy loads and landed quickly and hard on the desert floor."
May 12, 2008: Williams writes another blog, responding to a note from a soldier who he met in Iraq. In this post, Williams indicates that he was in a helicopter that took fire:
"The last time I saw him, I was with my friend and NBC News Military Analyst Wayne Downing, a retired 4-Star Army General. Wayne and I were riding along as part of an Army mission to deliver bridge components to the Euphrates River, so that the invading forces of the 3rd Infantry could cross the river on their way to Baghdad. We came under fire by what appeared to be Iraqi farmers with RPG's and AK-47's. The Chinook helicopter flying in front of ours (from the 101st Airborne) took an RPG to the rear rotor, as all four of our low-flying Chinooks took fire. We were forced down and stayed down -- for the better (or worse) part of 3 days and 2 nights."
March 4, 2013: In an interview with actor Alec Baldwin on WNYC’s Here’s the Thing, Williams said he thought he could have died during the attack:
"I’ve done some ridiculously stupid things under that banner, like being in a helicopter I had no business being in in Iraq with rounds coming into the airframe," he said.
"Did you think you would die?" Baldwin asked.
"Briefly, sure," Williams said.
March 26, 2013: On the 10th anniversary of his helicopter ride, Williams recounted the experience with late night talk show host David Letterman, clarifying that fire hit his helicopter:
"We were in some helicopters. What we didn’t know was, we were north of the invasion. We were the northernmost Americans in Iraq. We were going to drop some bridge portions across the Euphrates so the Third Infantry could cross on them. Two of the four helicopters were hit, by ground fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK-47."
Jan. 30, 2015: Williams retold the story on NBC Nightly News. The broadcast shows Williams with a soldier at a New York Rangers hockey game at Madison Square Garden, where the game announcer told the story over a loudspeaker:
In the broadcast, he said, "The story actually started with a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG, Our traveling NBC News team was rescued, surrounded and kept alive by an armored mechanized platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry."
Feb. 4, 2015: Williams apologized for saying that he rode in a helicopter that sustained fire and clarified his remarks on NBC Nightly News:
"I want to apologize. I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire. I was instead in a following aircraft. We all landed after the ground fire incident and spent two harrowing nights in a sandstorm in the Iraqi desert. This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran and by extension our brave military men and women, veterans everywhere, those who have served while I did not. I hope they know they have my greatest respect, and also now my apology."
Stars and Stripes, "NBC’s Brian Williams recants Iraq story after soldiers protest," Feb. 4, 2015
Washington Post, "NBC News’s Brian Williams recants story about taking incoming fire during Iraq war coverage," Feb. 4, 2015
Slate, "Brian Williams Still Has a Lot of Questions To Answer About His Iraq Helicopter Story," Feb. 4, 2015
Buzzfeed, "NBC’s Brian Williams Recants Story About His Helicopter Being Shot Down In Iraq," Feb, 4, 2015
Fox, "Brian Williams’ Original Helicopter Report," Feb. 5, 2015
CNN, "How Brian Williams' Iraq story changed," Feb. 5, 2015
NBC, "Operation Iraqi Freedom," September 2003
NBC, "Brian Williams Offers Clarification About 2003 Iraq Incident," Feb. 4, 2015
WNYC, Here’s the Thing, March 4, 2013
NBC, "Prior associations," May 12, 2008
NBC, "The Long Gray Line," Sept. 27, 2007
NBC Nightly News Facebook, "In 2003, this soldier saved Brian Williams' life. 12 years later, they were reunited at a hockey game," Jan. 30, 2015