At 6 a.m. Aug. 2, Cheektowaga native Daniel L. Kirisits woke up to the sounds of war.
"I was awakened by a sonic boom," Kirisits said today from his parents' Cheektowaga home. "Then we could hear the airport being bombed. I got a phone call from my friend in the city, who said: 'Dan, we shouldn't go to work today. There are soldiers in the street, and they're shooting people.' "
Kirisits, a drilling manager for a Kuwait oil company, spent the next four months as a virtual prisoner in his suburban Kuwait villa, seeking occasional refuge in an attic crawl space behind an air-conditioning unit.
As Iraqi soldiers went house-to-house looking for Westerners, Kirisits, a 1962 Cleveland Hill High School graduate, survived undetected, depending on his own boldness and ingenuity as well as help from his Asian and Kuwaiti friends.
In a 45-minute interview this morning, Kirisits, 46, described his four-month ordeal hiding from Saddam Hussein's brutal invasion and terror. His tales included executions and Kuwaitis' bodies dumped in front of their families' front doors.
"So many Kuwaitis were brutalized, and so many of them lost their lives," Kirisits said. "Some Kuwaiti doctors were executed after they operated on Iraqi soldiers and the soldiers died."
While Kirisits didn't fear he would
be executed if caught, because American hostages were worth more to the Iraqis alive than dead, the uncertainties of the continuing standoff ate away at him.
"We were concerned it might go on for a year or more," he said.
That's why Kirisits was so surprised last week when he learned he could leave Kuwait.
"It was a complete shock to us when Saddam Hussein announced that all hostages would be freed," he said. "I was in complete shock. We thought we would have to be liberated by war. We were all hoping and praying that the U.S. would use force or that the threat of force would force Saddam and the Iraqis to leave Kuwait. If that didn't work, we wanted an invasion to liberate Kuwait."
Kirisits and his friends in Kuwait didn't think economic sanctions were the answer, even if they are used for 18 months.
"We knew the Iraqis would still be there, and we thought things would be worse after 18 months."
Now that the hostages have been freed, what does Kirisits think will happen?
"I think that if the American people stand behind George Bush and (Secretary of State James A.) Baker, and if the Iraqis believe force will be used, that will be our best chance of peace," he said.
Following the Iraqi invasion on Aug. 2, Kirisits and others were able to leave their residences, to shop and visit friends. That freedom ended in mid-August.
"The Iraqis made an announcement that all the Americans should report to the two main hotels in town," he said. "They said it would be for our safety, but they also said if we didn't report, we would be in serious trouble.
"It was clear that we were going to be taken captive."
Kirisits and most of the Westerners he knew decided not to report.
For the next 111 days, Kirisits hid.
At the beginning, he sneaked out of his house to visit neighbors, but only at night. In mid-September that ended, when the Iraqi soldiers conducted house-to-house searches looking for Westerners.
On Sept. 18, his Asian neighbors called to tell him that Iraqi soldiers had come to inspect the house. Kirisits fled to his attic hiding space, while the neighbors, using a key they had to his house, came over and convinced the soldiers that they, not Kirisits, lived there.
That wasn't the only time Kirisits had to retreat to the attic crawl space. Iraqi soldiers stationed in his neighborhood came to the three-family villa several more times, usually to beg for food or cigarettes.
Kirisits never found any reason to feel secure in his hiding place.
Once, on Oct. 8, he and a German friend hiding in a nearby villa planned an escape. The next day, Iraqi soldiers came and picked up the German.
With access to radio and television news and the telephone -- phones apparently were bugged, but the calls couldn't be traced -- Kirisits knew about the torture outside his hiding place.
For example, he said, suspected Kuwaiti resistance members were tortured, then reunited with their families. During those joyous family reunions, the resistance member would be asked to sign a release.
Then, the person would be executed in front of his family.
And Kuwaitis who died in detention had their bodies thrown in front of their families' homes, Kirisits said.
That's why Kirisits, asked to characterize Saddam, compared him to Hitler and Stalin.
"He's repressed all freedom in his own country, and now he's trying to repress freedom abroad," he said. "He's ruthless, intelligent, crafty, and he's extremely brutal."
Kirisits, however, managed to escape the brutality.
On Dec. 6, two days before his 46th birthday, Kirisits heard on BBC radio that Saddam pledged to free the Western hostages.
"I just ran outside and looked at the sky," he said of his first fresh air since mid-September. "I just had to go out."
The next day, the U.S. Embassy confirmed that the hostages in hiding would be able to leave.
Then, on his birthday, Saturday, Kirisits received a phone call from the American Embassy telling him to be at the airport the next morning for his flight out of Kuwait.
Throughout his ordeal, one thing that kept Kirisits going was the Voice of America's 30-second messages from family members, including his parents, John A. and Helene of Cheektowaga, his wife, Linda, of Houston and his daughters, Rebecca and Jennifer.
"That really gave us a lot of strength," he said.