Late on Feb. 21 a message arrived at TIME's Photo department in New York. It was from French photographer William Daniels, saying he had smuggled himself into the epicenter of Syria's yearlong revolt the besieged neighborhood of Bab Amr, in the city of Homs. Holed up with him were a few local activists, plus French reporter Édith Bouvier, French photographer Rémi Ochlik, Spanish reporter Javier Espinosa, as well as American war correspondent Marie Colvin and British photographer Paul Conroy, both of whom had arrived there the day before. They had all sneaked into the country with the help of Syrian activists who had smuggled them across the border, at immense risk to themselves, believing it was crucial for the West to know about the mounting disaster. The journey included a hair-raising stretch through 2.5 miles of tunnel running under the Syrian Army's firing positions. For a moment, the journalists felt the thrill of adventure, as Daniels himself now admits. They were in the middle of the biggest news story in the world. But the adventure would quickly turn to terror and, for those who made it out alive, those nine days in Syria could well haunt them for the rest of their lives.
At 8:22 a.m. the next morning, Feb. 22, the Syrian Army opened fire on the area where the journalists were staying. "The shelling began very close to us. One boom, then a second. On the third the Syrians with us shouted 'you have to get out!'" says Daniels, 35.
Colvin and Ochlik ran out the door of their two-room hideout to grab their shoes at the entrance so they could flee. In the chaos, Daniels made a different, split-second decision: to stand a foot to the right of the wooden doorway to the room, placing his body against the inside wall, a reflexive action that would save him. Espinosa, meanwhile, jumped to the right of the doorway. The night before, Daniels and Conroy had surveyed their quarters a makeshift media center deemed convenient since it had internet access and concluded that the simple wooden door would not withstand a blast. But when the blast occurred, Conroy found himself in the path of the doorway, along with Bouvier.
At that instant, a rocket exploded at the front of the building, killing Colvin and Ochlik instantly. The space was filled with dust. In the chaos, Daniels heard Bouvier scream, "William, William! I can't move!" Her left leg was crooked. He pulled her out by the shoulders. She was bleeding heavily. Carrying his colleague, Daniels staggered to the doorway. As he glanced down, he saw his friend Ochlik, just 28, lifeless on the floor. "Edith," he gasped to Bouvier, "Rémi is not with us anymore."
Bleeding and shaken, the journalists and Syrians in the house hid for 10 minutes in the bathroom, the safest spot in the house, until a car arrived to get them out. Frantic Syrian activists raced them to a makeshift clinic, where the doctor, a defector from President Bashar Assad's military, declared that Bouvier needed an operation on two fractures on the femur. It was a procedure impossible to undertake given the war conditions in the besieged Bab Amr district of Homs. Equally impossible was fleeing through the tunnel by which they'd come, since Bouvier could not walk and transporting her by car was too dangerous for her safety. Conroy, who was also injured in the abdomen, had a large leg wound, but could be carried easily. The doctor injected Bouvier with morphine, and helped the journalists find a new hideout: a room with one small window surrounded by three-story houses, and hidden from the street.
Traction was crucial to avoid blood clots in Bouvier's leg. "We had to keep finding things to weigh her leg down," Daniels says. "We took six bags of saline fluid and tied them to her foot." Two activists with first-aid training were assigned to care for Bouvier and Conroy in two 12-hour shifts, injecting Bouvier with pain killers and finally instructing Daniels about how to administer the injections.
They were trapped Daniels, Bouvier, Espinosa, and Conroy. Confined to their sunless shelter, they sat listening, day after day, from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m., to rockets and shells exploding outside, with a lull only around midday prayers. The closest Internet connection was a hazardous 10-minute walk through Bab Amr. But the journalists recorded a videotape, and handed it to activists to upload on YouTube. Broadcast across the world, it showed Daniels, Conroy and Bouvier appealing to the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) to evacuate them. They looked curiously upbeat. Bouvier's dark curls framed her broad smile. "We were happy just to have people come see us," Daniels explains. "Edith looked radiant because that is her personality, she smiles a lot and loves to talk to people."
Despite the appearance of calm, with each passing hour, their fate was growing more and more tenuous. The Syrian military was drawing nearer; the explosions growing louder. "There was a drone just in front of us overhead," Daniels says. "It made us crazy, we could hear it above, all the time, all the time. We wanted to kill this little mosquito and we were dreaming of using anti-mosquito spray."