In the line of fire

CBC producer Cedric Monteiro reports on Thailand's unrest from the streets of Bangkok.
Smoke billows up from Bangkok, where raids against Thai anti-government protesters prompted them to light fire to tire barricades they had erected in the capital. ((Anthony Germain/CBC))

Cedric Monteiro is a producer with CBC News.

The bam, bam, bam of rifle fire sends the Thai army and dozens of journalists ducking for cover. The shots being fired are from the so-called Black Shirts, an armed and militant subgroup within the Red Shirt protesters.

I'm with CBC camera operator Glen Kugelstadt and correspondents Michel Cormier and Anthony Germain. Also along with us is our versatile and indispensable Thai driver, Mr. Pakdee. All of us, soldiers included, hit the ground. The firing is intense and terrifying. Then a massive blast thunders across the air and ground.

We'll learn later the explosion was caused by a Black Shirt shooting a propane tank. As we lie pinned to the ground for about four minutes — that seems like an eternity — we have no idea where the gunfire is coming from, or when it will stop.

Then suddenly as soldiers scream for everyone to run, we rise en masse, a stampede of troops and journalists all trying to gain distance from the gunfire. In the fear of flight we get separated. I'm left with Kugelstadt and driver Pakdee. Along with a bunch of soldiers, we run to the side and hunker against the wall surrounding Bangkok's famous Lumpini park. The gunfire dies down for a bit. 

As we wait, I see Chandler Vandergrift — a writer, photographer and conflict-management consultant from Canada who has been documenting the tensions between the protesters and the government. He's taking close-up photos of soldiers from the median of the road. The soldiers are using concrete light standards to shield themselves, their guns at the ready.

Unlike us, but like several other journalists, Vandergrift isn't wearing a bulletproof vest or helmet. All he has on is a pale blue shirt, tan trousers, brown leather shoes, and a motorbike helmet. I turn to Kugelstadt and say: "I can't believe he isn't wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet, and I can't believe he's out there in the middle."

There is sporadic gunfire as our group of soldiers and journalists retreats. I do not see Vandergrift, he is still up the road.

I'd met him a few days ago at the intensive care unit of a Bangkok hospital where his friend Nelson Rand was recovering from three gunshot wounds. Rand, a Canadian, was gunned down as he ran across the road while filming a gun fight between the Black Shirt militia and the Thai army.

As the CBC crew filmed an interview with Rand inside the ICU, I sat outside chatting with Vandergrift. He talked about how he'd been friends with Rand since their days in Alberta. And he talked about his contract work at the Asia Foundation. The consulting job involved conflict resolution in southern Thailand — where militant Muslim separatists have been battling Thailand's armed forces.

These days though, he said, he was dabbling in journalism. He and a couple of his friends had been shooting the Red Shirts' protests over the past two months. They planned to make a documentary and sell it to networks around the world.

The Red Shirt protest in Bangkok had attracted media from across the globe. It had drawn not just the pros but a number of novice journalists.

As armoured personnel carriers crushed across barriers set up around the Red Shirt encampment, many of those journalists ran behind them, along with soldiers. Our CBC crew hung back and then followed in with a second wave of soldiers. 

Now as we retreated, a long line of elite troops snaked their way up the road where fighting was still in progress. Kugelstadt, Pakdee and I had dropped even farther back when we heard the sirens from ambulances. Three of them raced up to the massive concrete barriers that blocked the road. Kugelstadt rushed to film them.

Down on the other side of the barriers soldiers were yelling as they ran with a bleeding colleague on a stretcher. He was bundled into the first ambulance and it sped away.

There was more yelling down the road, from more soldiers running with stretchers. As the first one went by I recognized Vandergrift on it. He was motionless, his head bandaged, his shoulder bleeding. Someone was shouting at him: "Chandler stay awake."

According to reports, he was struck by shrapnel from a grenade that also tore through the arm of a Thai soldier. Tonight Vandergrift lies in hospital in serious condition, fighting for his life. The sadness of the moment lies even heavier because I knew him. He is among four journalists who were injured today. Another was killed — an Italian photographer.

As I try to fathom why so many scribes race with such intensity and abandon to cover conflict, I'm reminded by what my journalism professor once said: "There is no story in the world worth dying for."