My First Big Story. 1973

I only heard yesterday that Chile will launch a judicial enquiry into the death of Salvador Allende. (I do not keep up as I used to: it was announced back in January).

September 11, 1973. Nearly forty years ago.

We saw the two planes come from nowhere at 11:52, their wings glinting in the sun. They made a wide turn, dipped and fired one rocket each into the Moneda Palace where President Salvador Allende was holed up.

Then the two Hawker Hunters turned behind San Christobal Hill and made five more passes. (I counted five: others say six).

Soon smoke was rising from the Moneda.

I was in the Hotel Carrera with other foreign journalists. We were told to go down to the cellars but most us stayed at the windows. They said the snipers were shooting at anything that moved.

After the attacks, we were all waiting for news about what had happened to the President and his entourage. At about 9:30 we had heard his farewell broadcast in which he said the people should not “sacrifice themselves’ or let themselves be “riddled with bullets”.

Shortly after that, as he had predicted, Radio Magellanes went silent.

Over the next weeks we learned most of the details. Just before 2:00pm, La Payita, Allende’s secretary, on his orders, hung a white doctor’s coat from a balcony and led the survivors down to the entrance on Morande Street. Allende said he would follow them but turned into the Salon Independencia. He sat down on a red-plush sofa, took off his gas mask, his steel helmet and his glasses. Then he put the barrel of the submachine gun given him by Fidel Castro under his chin, and blew his brains out.

There wasn’t much blood but his brains were scattered all over the curtains and tapestries of the Salon.

The President was wearing reddish brown trousers, a grey pullover, and a tweed jacket.

I was told I had done a good job when I got back to Buenos Aires where the Latin American Bureau Chief was based. I got the byline and I think he sent a letter of commendation. (After the ridiculous Tancazo incident he had got bored with Chile and did not want to go again so he had requested a junior).

I guess I was persistent. I picked the brains of the other journalists. I got the hotel staff to point out all the landmarks and made sure I got the details right. My Spanish was better than some of the others and I helped them out, not giving too much away, of course.

In the end I won most credits from my bosses for disentangling the story of Allende’s suicide.  We never gave credit to the alternative assassination theory promoted by Fidel Castro and by Nobel prize-winner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

*He’s solid”, I heard one of the senor staffers say.

Poor Allende, a clever and persuasive man and a good politician. But he was too much in love with negotiation and failed to close when he needed to. He should have done a deal with the Christian Democrats when he could. As for the Trotskyite Carlos Altamirano and his MIR, Allende should have distanced himself more clearly. No good just calling Altamirano a “madman” in private.

Right to the end he thought he could do a deal with the Generals but once coup planning was underway they weren’t having it.

Chile got the Junta. Many people died.

I wrote more about Chile later when I was assigned the covert action stories in 1974.

I also covered the despicable murders of Orlando Letelier in Washington and Carlos Prats in Buenos Aires.

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I think the house martins have come back. I saw some fluttering around the spot under the eaves where they use to nest but it’s been abandoned for the last two years.