Pilot of Brian Williams’ helicopter in Iraq: ‘We took small arms fire’
Update: The pilot interviewed by CNN and quoted in this article is no longer standing by his story. In a text message to CNN's Brian Stelter Friday morning, the pilot said the following:
"The information I gave you was true based on my memories, but at this point I am questioning my memories that I may have forgotten or left something out."
Brian Williams gained some support Thursday from the pilot of the Chinook helicopter that Williams was aboard during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
CNN, landed an exclusive interview with retired Chief Warrant Officer 4, U.S. Army Rich Krell, who told CNN he was piloting Williams' chopper.
Krell provided key details that may explain inconsistencies in what Williams reported and what soldiers said actually happened. In short, Krell said the chopper Williams was on was hit by gunfire, that Williams was near the chopper hit by a rocket propelled grenade and that Williams had good reason to be concerned for his safety.
Krell spoke by phone to CNN's Jake Tapper Thursday afternoon. I've paraphrased Tapper's questions and answers with Krell to give you the gist. Here are the important parts, all of which boost Williams' version of what happened:
Was the chopper that Williams was in hit by gunfire?
Krell said, "We took small arms fire, all I know is one RPG was fired and it struck the lead aircraft which was what we call six rotor discs in front of me." Krell also said that Williams, "Would have been aware of it because of the activity of the crew, the door gunners were returning fire."
So Williams' chopper was hit, as he claimed several times?
Krell confirmed that the chopper was struck: "The pinging of the bullets hitting us, there were only a few, but it is a distinct sound."
The bullets hit "the belly of the forward cabin area and one, two, other side hits. It didn't cause any major damage, just minor damage to electronic components."
What about the claims by some soldiers that Williams' chopper was an hour behind the ones hit by gunfire?
Krell says after the three (not four, as has been widely reported) Chinooks took evasive maneuvers, the chopper Williams was on kept its load and continued on its way, while the lead chopper, the one hit by the RPG, began looking for a safe place to land. That would explain why Williams' chopper didn't land right away and would have come a half hour or some said an hour later.
So how accurate was the announcement at the Rangers game that sparked this whole story?
Williams' account of the events were challenged after he invited a retiring solider to a New York Rangers hockey game last week as a thank you for helping him and the NBC crew through their ordeal in the Iraq desert.
The Rangers organization flashed their images on the big screen and told the story of how Sgt. Major Tim Terpak took care of Williams after his “helicopter was hit and crippled by enemy fire.”
We still don’t know who told the Rangers' announcer that version of the story. The Rangers' PR office told me they are not talking about their announcement. But Krell told CNN the chopper was not “crippled” even after being hit by a few rounds of gunfire. The small arms fire caused damage to the chopper’s equipment but not enough to force an emergency landing. Krell said he landed in the desert because of an approaching sandstorm.
Krell said it was right for Williams to apologize for saying wrongly that his chopper was hit by an RPG. But the other details of the story, he said, were correct.