|Live from Baghdad: Area man behind lens, lines
|By:Gordon Glantz, Times Herald Staff||Originally Published||April 20, 2003|
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Sparse amounts of running water. Searing heat. Bunking outside, trying to catch some sleep. Finally falling into a shallow slumber, only to be jolted awake by the sound of gunfire a mere 500 yards away.
While it doesn't sound like a stay in Utopia, there is no place - other than back home in Collegeville, with his "high school sweetheart," wife Pam, and his "irresistible" daughters, Abbi and Rachel - that William J. "Bill" Angelucci would rather be this Easter Sunday.
The Norristown Area High School graduate, who was born and raised by his parents, Albert and Nancy, in East Norriton, is currently a cameraman for NBC, embedded on the front lines in Iraq.
While seeking out one of those rare encounters with a working computer to send an e-mail homeward, Angelucci found himself in a precarious spot.
"As I am typing this letter to you, I can hear gunfire and see flares in the sky," he wrote. "It can be eerie sleeping outside with no walls around you and hearing 'The Boogie Monster' playing out loud."
Nonetheless, he has continued his march into the eye of the storm, camera in hand, without hesitation.
"I volunteered for this mission," continued Angelucci, whose travels have led to work for various networks in places from Israel and the troubled West Bank, to Ground Zero in Manhattan, to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
NBC, which gobbled up Angelucci as a freelancer, prepared for the hazards of capturing images of a war in Iraq by sending him through high-risk classes that included life-or-death information on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
"The high-risk classes prepared me for ambushes, land mines and terrorist hijackings," he said of the weeklong eye-opener of a course at a military facility in Quantico, Va.
NBC issued Angelucci a special jacket that can allegedly stop state-of-the-art projectiles, a gas mask and chemical suits, and sent him on his way.
His third child due in July, Angelucci has been embedded with the likes of the 101st Airborne, the 2nd Brigade and the 502nd Regiment.
"We awake at the break of dawn, pack up and head out to the next mission on a daily basis," he said of the daily grind. "No weekends off on this tour and all the MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) taste the same.
"I enjoy walking with the troops, whether they are clearing the city, house by house, or just being good ambassadors, shaking hands with Iraqi citizens in the streets of Baghdad."
Angelucci - terming his ongoing experiences "exciting and grueling, both at the same time" - has filmed firefights and has run alongside a statue version of Saddam Hussein's head in the street as it was dragged along by jubilant anti-Saddam Iraqis.
There have also been some potentially daunting moments along the way.
"It depends what you call a close call," said Angelucci, who works for Pennsylvania Productions and Associates in Conshohocken, and was covering the United Nations for NBC while working on a magazine show, "Profiles," for Fox before accepting this latest assignment.
Angelucci recalls crossing a bridge over the Euphrates River that had been sabotaged and partially collapsed by the Fedayeen Sadaam (Saddam's Men of Sacrifice) with the knowledge that a simple radio signal could ignite the fuse and cause an explosion.
In Najaf, he was videotaping enemy headquarters when the Red Guard suddenly opened fire and mortared U.S. troops.
"I've learned to keep an eye out and find a place to jump to safety," he said.
And he has learned how to put aside bouts of homesickness and find NBC a scoop or two.
"My family regularly pops in my mind," he explained. "It's just a matter of the focus you can attribute when performing your job. The additional moments I have to reflect about the situation, reflects the images of my family. Automatically, when I see the images in my viewfinder, I shut out those images and concentrate on my job.
"The error of some photographers is that they become bulletproof behind the lens of a camera. I was in Karbala when my crew got a tip about metal drums holding sarin and blistering agents in a paramilitary camp."
While his correspondent, Dana Lewis, ran from their vehicle in his haste to tape prior to losing the light of day, Angelucci took proper precautions.
"I was in no mood to hurry to play with chemical agents without my proper equipment," he said. "Five minutes of prep time and NBC scooped an exclusive for the network. ... No one got hurt on that story."
Pamela Angelucci's schoolgirl feelings for Bill were mercurial - dislike turned to like, and like turned to love - and the two 1985 Norristown graduates married in 1993.
And when she said, "I do," she understood what came with the territory.
"Truth be told, I always thought he'd be shooting the news, although never as a war journalist," she said. "I've come to realize that it's in his blood."
Though 6½ months pregnant with her third child, she recites this mantra to herself during those lonely times.
"Back in high school, when I fell in love, I knew I was going to marry a cameraman," she said.
"... I wake up every day and do what I need to do.
Like almost all Americans, life changed for the Angeluccis on Sept. 11, 2001.
"Because he was at Ground Zero, he feels like he wants to see it through," said Pam. "He saw the beginning, so he wants to see the end.
"Normally, he is gone nine to 10 weeks. This has been 3½ months and, of all his assignments, this is the scariest."
Time again for that mantra.
"He's over there, and he's in his glory," she said. "The girls and I, we've gotten used to him traveling, which has been nonstop since 9-11."
All told, Angelucci has worked for NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox and PBS, and has been afforded the opportunity to travel to "exotic destinations and meet interesting people" along the way.
"You may compare my journey as an anthropological study of the human drama," he said. "Afghanistan sticks out in my mind on how people in that culture live in their environment. It was like going back to the Stone Age and seeing how people live and care for their families.
"Domestically, I've had the thrill of following the presidential campaign and sorrow of being at Ground Zero that fateful day. Since Sept. 11, NBC has sent me mainly to the Middle East."
The Middle East: The cradle of civilization and current epicenter of world unrest.
Retired Norristown High teacher Tony Coia, the man whom Angelucci credits with pointing him onto his career path, is not in shock, but remains in awe that one his prized pupils is in such a place plying his chosen trade.
"It doesn't surprise me in the least that he is in the thick of things," said Coia. "Bill was the kind of a guy who was always in the center of things in high school, one of those guys that things always seemed to happen around.
"Early on, he wanted to be involved in the business, so this is not surprising. It's a tough business to break in and to stay in and, right now, he's at the top of the game."
Coia piloted Norristown High's Telecommunications Class - which is now responsible for filming everything from a daily news show, to school sporting events, to instructional tapes for the school - back in the 1970s.
The program, known as "Telecomm" around school, was hitting its stride when Angelucci appeared on the scene in the mid-1980s and quickly became one its most memorable "Commies."
"He's one of those people, as you look back on your teaching career, who sticks out," said Coia. "Bill was not the best student in the world, but he had the whole package. Even at that age, he was mature enough to understand what was going on around him."
Angelucci, who went on to East Stroudsburg University, where he earned a degree in media communications and technology, points to Coia as lighting a spark.
"Mr. Coia, my high school communications teacher, encouraged me in my career the communications business," said Angelucci.
And to be recalled fondly is one of the highest honors for a teacher.
"It really is," confirmed Coia. "It makes me feel good.
"And Bill was one of those guys who you knew was going to achieve his goal."
All About People
Coia says that while some of his students seeking careers in television had the technical know-how, they lacked the "people" skills needed to apply them.
"But Bill, he had both," said Coia.
This may explain why the moments that have stuck with Angelucci the most during his time in Iraq have been those of unrehearsed interaction with the Iraqi people.
"The people of Baghdad welcoming the American soldiers with warm handshakes and thumbs-up(s) for a good job," he said, in response to question about his most memorable lasting images.
Angelucci recently spent time with the "PSY-OPs (Psychological Operations) Team," which gathers intelligence and communicates with Iraqi citizens.
It was this outfit, for example, which mounted loud speakers to a machine gun turret atop a bulletproof Humvee and encouraged the people of Baghdad, in Arabic, to stop loitering and avoid government establishments.
The soldiers walked the streets after the message was played and, through interpreters, spoke to the people about turning their electricity back on and about where weapons caches might be uncovered.
"What touched me were the soldiers taking time to shake the hands of welcoming Iraqis and people of all ages flocking out of their homes and welcoming the soldiers and telling them 'good' in broken English," said Angelucci.
And Angelucci, whose brother James is a persistent rookie detective with the Norristown Police Department, has had his own moments of interaction.
"The Iraqi people have been warm all over to me, welcoming me to their country and thanking the U.S. soldiers for their efforts," he said. "The other 10 percent of the population just gives you a deep stare. You can make your own analysis of whether they are staring because of hatred or of confusion."
There will be confusion about emotions when Angelucci touches home plate, perhaps by the middle of next month, at his "humble rancher" in Collegeville.
"I look forward to smelling the flowers and taking life one day at a time," he said, "and enjoying my children before they grow up too fast."
William Angelucci is a 1985 Graduate of NAHS
James Angelucci is a 1988 Graduate of NAHS