When The Terror Began

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OLYMPIC SYMBOL: A Black September commando appears on the balcony of the building where the Israeli team members were held

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Wolf was. For unknown reasons, he thought that there were only five terrorists. Yet now, critically, the snipers didn't know they were outnumbered. Schreiber's testimony to investigators from the Bavarian prosecutor's office as to why he hadn't focused early in the day on the number of terrorists would reflect the crossed signals characterizing the operation: "I was sure somebody" — somebody else — "would count them as soon as an opportunity presented itself."

Now the plan rested on the accuracy of five sharpshooters, none of whom had any special training. All had been chosen simply because they shot competitively on weekends. Nevertheless, three took positions on the terrace of the control tower. A fourth lay on the tarmac, behind a low concrete parapet. The fifth took cover behind a fire truck.

The helicopters touched down at 10:35 p.m. The four pilots and six of the fedayeen emerged. As other Black Septembrists held the pilots at gunpoint, Issa and Tony walked over to inspect the jet. Their suspicions already aroused by the lengthy helicopter transfer, they must have gone on full alert when they found the plane empty. As they jogged hastily back toward the helicopters, Wolf gave the order to open fire.

The events that followed are still a Rashomon-like fog of chaos, gore and contradiction. This much seems likely, however: gunfire filled the air for the first four minutes. With six terrorists visible, snipers killed two and mortally wounded a third. But the other three, including Issa and Tony, scrambled to safety. As the pilots dashed for cover, the Palestinian survivors of that first fusillade ducked beneath and behind the helicopters, from where they shot out as many of the airport lights as they could.

That flurry of gunfire gave way to an eerie stalemate of more than an hour, during which neither side got off more than a few shots. At this point some sort of swat team might have stormed the Palestinian positions. But a police "special assault unit," helicoptered in about an hour after the shooting began, for some reason landed at the far end of the airfield, nearly 2 km from the action, and was never deployed. "The biggest failure was not having enough sharpshooters," says Ulrich Wegener, a lieutenant colonel in the Bundeswehr who served as Genscher's aide-de-camp that day and went on to lead the GSG-9, the special-forces unit that the West German government established within two weeks of the fiasco. "The second- biggest failure was not having special forces that could storm the helicopters."

Alternatively, German forces might have attacked with armored personnel carriers. But six such carriers ordered to the scene had got stuck in traffic, much of it caused by curiosity seekers flocking to F�rstenfeldbruck, as if it were the venue for another Olympic event. One carrier had mistakenly lit out for Riem, Munich's civilian airport, on the other side of town, as had scores of police. In a Keystone Kops moment, the driver of one police car happened to hear the correct destination on the radio, slammed on the brakes and caused a pileup.

Just before midnight the carriers finally arrived to bear down on the helicopters. Only here did the hostages lose their lives, to judge by what can be pieced together from portions of that long-suppressed Bavarian prosecutor's office report. A terrorist strafed the four hostages inside one helicopter, killing Springer, Halfin and Ze'ev Friedman and wounding Berger. Then he sprang to the ground, wheeled and flung a grenade back into the cockpit before being shot dead as he fled.

Before fire from that explosion reached the fuel tank and turned the helicopter into an inferno, Issa emerged defiantly from beneath the other chopper with AK-47 blazing, strafing the Germans. Police killed him and a second fedayee with return fire. Then another commando raked the remaining five hostages — Gutfreund, Schorr, Slavin, Spitzer and Shapira — with fatal gunfire.

Berger would be the last hostage to die. He had taken two nonlethal bullets in his lower extremities, only to perish of smoke inhalation. Three fedayeen, alive and largely unhurt, lay on their stomachs nearby, two of them playing dead. They were captured, and 40 minutes later, with the help of dogs and tear gas, police tracked Tony to the refuge he had taken beneath a railroad car on the fringe of the airfield, killing him during a brief gun battle.

The last shot, fired at about 12:30 a.m., ended nearly three hours of an operation that, as an official involved later put it, "was condemned to fail from the beginning." To this day the Germans have never satisfactorily explained why they didn't deploy two or three snipers for each terrorist. The gunmen had neither precision rifles nor bulletproof vests. The military airfield was only moderately lit, so the police had erected three mobile lighting towers, but on this moonless night the towers cast stark shadows, as did the helicopters' long rotor blades, and none of the snipers had been issued night-vision goggles. Several nights later, during a reconstruction exercise, members of a team from the Bavarian prosecutor's office positioned themselves exactly where the five police gunmen had been. With night-vision goggles, each was able to distinguish figures within the helicopters.

Indeed, the police shot as much in the figurative as the literal dark. They hadn't merely been kept ignorant of how many terrorists to expect; no one had told them precisely where the helicopters would be landing and hence what might be the optimal positions to take up. Finally, the policemen had no two-way radios with which to coordinate an operation that had to take out the commandos virtually at a stroke. When Wolf, in the tower, gave the order to fire, only three gunmen were in a position to hear him; the other two, who were to begin shooting when they heard gunfire, found themselves in the line of fire of their comrades and had to take cover. So in effect three riflemen were left to take out the eight terrorists. That trio's shooting was only enough to disable three of the fedayeen immediately and to alert the other five that the day's negotiations had been a ruse.

In their negligence suit the families of the victims charged that saving the hostages became subordinate to Brundage's desire to remove the crisis from the Olympic Village. Wegener suggests as much. "The Village," he says, "was like a church, a cathedral." It was almost as if the Germans had said, There's no way we can save the hostages. Let's at least save the Games.
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