As Steven Cianfrini crouched down in a irrigation canal south of Baghdad, neck deep in water and mud, listening to the whine of machine gun bullets all around him, it didn't seem likely he'd live to see this Fourth of July.
But, by a miracle, and after an amazing rescue Monday by U.S. troops, Cianfrini survived.
Now his family is celebrating an Independence Day they will always remember.
Cianfrini, 27, an Army helicopter pilot from Oakfield in Genesee County and son of the village's mayor, was one of two men plucked from certain death Monday after his OH-58 Kiowa helicopter was forced down by heavy machine gun fire from Iraqi insurgents.
He and fellow pilot Mark Burrows, 35, of Waverly, a small Southern Tier community southeast of Elmira, were flying an air support mission for ground troops when they came under enemy fire. It was the first time Cianfrini, who is in the 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum and on his first tour of duty in Iraq, came under enemy fire in his aircraft.
Cianfrini first screamed to Burrows that their helicopter was "taking fire" as tracer rounds struck the aircraft. Burrows said he began to maneuver the Kiowa outside of the range of the weapons, but the aircraft was quickly met by machine gun fire and large-caliber antiaircraft ammunition that pierced the shell of the aircraft.
"Outside my door, heavy machine gun fire opened up on our aircraft and peppered the whole left side," Cianfrini said in a video interview aired by the Department of Defense. "The aircraft took pretty substantial damage. At that point, the whole world just opened up on us."
Added Burrows: "I could feel the small arms -- the AK-47-type rounds hitting the aircraft through the controls and through the seat and I could also feel the very large-caliber anti-aircraft weapons hitting the aircraft like sledgehammers." The main rotor of the helicopter was damaged, causing the chopper to shake violently, according to reports in the Washington Post. It began to spin out of control, leading Burrows to kill the Kiowa's power about 20 feet above the ground. It struck the ground tail-first, bouncing over the canal, crashing nose down and sliding into a ditch near a dirt road, according to the Post.
The men climbed out of the burning helicopter with only minor scratches and dodged insurgent gunfire. Heading about 30 feet across the road toward the canal, Burrows first waded into the canal. He began to sink into the mud with the water rising to his neck. Cianfrini then also waded in and crouched down, according to the reports.
Both Cianfrini and Burrows became stuck in the mud in the canal, unable to move. Machine gun fire whizzed through the reeds into the canal near their positions.
"The fire coming into the reeds was so intense, I was expecting to take a bullet in the head at any minute," Cianfrini told the Post.
After five to 10 minutes, the machine gun fire slowly started to dissipate. An unmanned U.S. drone aircraft circled above them. Help was not far behind.
A pair of Apache helicopters from the 1st Calvary Division pushed back the insurgents. Burrows was able to climb out of the mud and up an embankment, signaling the Apache for help. Using his M4 rifle, he pulled Cianfrini out of the mud.
Because the Apache has just two seats, one of the Apache pilots and Burrows had to strap themselves to the outside of the aircraft, braving 120 mph winds on the ride back to base. Cianfrini rode inside in the Apache.
Burrows, who without a helmet gripped the outside of the Apache, called the 10-minute flight back to the base in Baghdad "a pretty wild ride." "I could endure anything at that point after what we had just gone through," Burrows said in the Department of Defense interview.
News of the experience and daring rescue quickly reached Western New York. Oakfield Mayor Raymond Cianfrini, Steven's father, said he received a call from his daughter-in-law, Jeanna, about 7 a.m. Monday, local time, saying Steven was safe but his helicopter had been shot down.
"I didn't have a lot of details," the elder Cianfrini said. "My son and I were able to text-message [Monday] afternoon . . . then, I realized what a traumatic experience he'd been through."
"It's nothing short of a miracle," the father said. "They seemed to do all the right things at the right time." Cianfrini has been in Iraq about two months, according to his father. The 1997 graduate of Oakfield-Alabama High School joined the Army after earning a two-year degree at Alfred State College and spending another two years at a private helicopter school in Connecticut.
He received his flying license and became a certified flight instructor in January 2003, just before the campaign in Iraq got under way.
Rather than put his training to civilian use, Cianfrini decided to join the Army because he wanted to fly the best aircraft. Naturally, he is making his family proud.
"It's going to be the happiest Fourth of July of my life," his father said.