A Service of brainline.org
In an Instant: A Family's Journey of Love and Healing
Orlando, Florida, January 28, 2006
There is a ride at Disney World called the Tower of Terror, and on the weekend of January 28, 2006, my four children, even the twin five-year olds, begged me to go on that ride over and over again.
Housed in a re-created aging Hollywood hotel, the ride begins where you climb into a creaky elevator that snakes its way through the creepy premises. An electrical storm kicks up, and right on cue something goes wrong with the power. The elevator in the eerie hotel suddenly drops. The descent is so rapid, so sudden, that it almost sucks your diaphragm up into your throat, and right before the drop there is a moment where you are literally suspended in air, too stunned to scream. It feels as if speed, motion, light, and time literally freeze.
We must have taken that ride a half dozen times. And then the feeling returned the following morning as I rolled over in my king-sized hotel bed. The day before, the kids and I had been to the Animal Kingdom in Disney World. We’d marveled at the African safari ride, ridden rapids in Asia, and gotten soaked as we howled our way down the man-made white water. After an early dinner we’d rented a pedal bike with another family and laughed until we cried as we raced other bikers around the lake, while fireworks from Epcot exploded overhead.
Tucking four kids into bed that night, I silently congratulated myself on a good weekend. I’d come to Disney to shoot a pilot TV show for Family Fun. We’d spent two days on set and then the rest of the time had been the kids’ reward: combing the parks for Disney character autographs for the twins and thrill-seeking rides for the older two. We’d planned to fly back home on Sunday and get ready for school.
Toting around four children by myself was not new. That weekend my husband, Bob Woodruff, the newly anointed co-anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight, was thousands of miles away in Iraq. We spoke to him briefly that day, in between the safari and the rapids ride. He and his crew had had a tiring day covering the Palestinian elections before flying on to Baghdad in advance of President Bush’s State of the Union address. The plan was to bolster ABC’s Iraq coverage at an important moment in the war. The pace was blistering, common to any foreign correspondent who must keep moving and file stories from faraway places in time zones eight to twelve hours ahead of our own.
Bob and his crew were operating on an aggressive schedule with only a few hours’ sleep each night. As usual, the itinerary was punishing. Get in, get the stories about the Iraqi military, anchor from Baghdad during Bush’s address, do some pieces for Good Morning America, and, on the way back, try to finalize an interview with the King of Jordan in Amman, the Jordanian capital.
Our conversations with him from Disney World had been short and tough. The cell service in Iraq was spotty and the time difference was frustrating. We had one conversation midday Saturday, as he and his crew were going to bed in a military compound somewhere in Baghdad. He exhaustedly mumbled something about getting much-needed sleep the next day. Exactly what he said didn’t register with me at the time. My daughter Cathryn was determined to buy a puka shell necklace. With my shoulder cradling the cell phone, I negotiated some cash from my wallet while keeping an eye on the twins, who were dangerously close to a fence in front of a bamboo grove.
Later, Bob would swear that he told me has was going to embed with the military for some exercises, while I would swear he said only that his team was going to relax for the day. At the end of our conversation I passed the cell phone around so the kids could say hi. This was common practice in our house — good-nights, kisses, homework help, all via satellite. When your father covers news around the world, the phone becomes a primary communication tool, for better or worse.
“Do you feel safe there?” I asked absentmindedly, collecting the change from Cathryn. “Are you okay?” It was a stupid rhetorical question, made more absurd by the fact that we were currently standing in Disney World, “the happiest place on earth,” while he was somewhere in the most violent place on the planet.
“I do. We’re surrounded by the military. It’s fine,” he reassured me. He and his cameraman, Doug Vogt, couldn’t know that the elevator was about to drop. In the ocher-colored sands on a godforsaken highway outside Baghdad, they were about to enter their own Tower of Terror.
That night I called the front desk to request a 7 a.m. wake-up call. With the bigger kids sleeping next to the twins, perhaps I could slip downstairs the next morning and take a quick swim in the pool before breakfast. Even though it was January in Florida, the water was invigorating and it would be a great way to start our last day in Orlando.
In a few days Bob would be home and we’d be a family again. His new appointment as co-anchor had set a grueling pace for the past month, even the weekends. His days had been crammed with photo shoots, press conferences, and ad campaigns. The new program with Bob and Elizabeth Vargas was committed to go to the story, to have one anchor on the road and one in the studio as often as possible. Bob relished the challenge. It was a new era at ABC News. There was an excitement at the broadcast that was a welcome tonic after the months of sorrow following Peter Jennings’s illness and then death from lung cancer. Bob and Elizabeth would give the news department something to rally around, after feeling like a ship without its beloved captain.
“Just get through January,” I had told Bob, as he left for the Middle East on that fateful trip. It had become a kind of mantra for us after the announcement, as he shot out of the gate as a newly minted co-anchor.
“I really don’t want to leave you guys,” he said, as he leaned into the door frame of my home office, rolling suitcase in hand. He looked exhausted, distracted, and not eager to get back on a plane to return to Iraq for the sixth or seventh time in three years. The town car was already idling in the driveway.
“Just get through January,” I repeated, “and life will take on a more normal pattern. We’ll have weekends again, and we can be a family.”