SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — For days, rumors had spread that a coup was imminent. The date chosen by the military and their supporters was the 11th of September.
That Tuesday in 1973, I arrived very early to The Associated Press bureau, not knowing that a military state of siege would keep me from returning home for four days.
Salvador Allende also rushed to arrive early at the government palace, La Moneda. I watched the presidential caravan pass below our office window, and spotted the car that carried Chile’s first Marxist president.
This was the time of radio, and channels crackled with announcements. While the coup was led by army Gen. Augusto Pinochet, official word came from Adm. Jose Toribio Merino, who announced at 8:30 a.m. that the navy had risen up against the government. Then someone read a proclamation that it was led by the commanders in chief of the four armed forces — the army, navy, air force and the military police, or “caribineros.”
“In the face of a grievous economic, social and moral crisis,” the proclamation said, the armed forces “are united to initiate the historic and responsible mission of liberating the people from the Marxist yoke.”
“The president should proceed to immediately surrender to the armed forces and military police of Chile,” the announcer said dramatically.
Allende made five radio broadcasts that day, first acknowledging that the navy had initiated an “uprising against the government.” Then he said he ordered army troops “to crush the coup attempt.” Then, he acknowledged their imminent defeat, and said that he would defend the government with his life: “Only by riddling me with bullets can they impede the people’s will.”
Outside the AP bureau’s windows, two Hawker Hunter jets unleashed the first furious bombardment, and tanks and soldiers surrounded the palace as it burst into flames.
Still, Allende kept talking, narrating his own tragedy, and that of what had been Latin America’s most stable democracy.
“This will certainly be the last opportunity to address you. The air force has bombarded the antennas of Radio Magallanes,” he said, referring to the station that was transmitting his words.
The military then gave Allende an 11 a.m. deadline, ordering him to surrender or see fighter jets attack the palace again.
Instead, Allende said: “I will not surrender. At this historic transition, I will pay for the loyalty of the people with my life.”
He urged Chileans to take heart from his last words: “Keep knowing that much sooner than later, the grand avenues will open once again, through which free men will pass to build a better society.”
The military held to its threat. At 11 a.m. on the dot, its bombs shook our office, and columns of reddish smoke rose into the sky as the palace’s colonial facade crumbled.
“They’ve attacked the Palacio de la Moneda!” reporter Luis Martinez shouted.
We were able to file an urgent dispatch to the AP’s headquarters in New York with Allende’s dramatic announcement, but then communications went down just before the full-fledged attack.
Trucks of soldiers appeared downtown, overpowering the stubborn resistance of the president’s men. Allende’s body was found shot to death, and word was spreading of his killing or suicide. So even though troops were closing in, Martinez and I ventured out to confirm it. The palace was closed off, but at El Mercurio, we found the newspaper’s chief photographer, Juan Enrique Lira, who had entered the wreckage. He provided the confirmation we needed.
By sunset, after intense firefights between soldiers and leftists, the junta announced the fall of Allende’s 1,000-day government. The air force commander, Gen. Gustavo Leigh, justified the violent takeover, saying: “It is necessary to eradicate the Marxist cancer from its roots.”
Most communications were cut off by then, but AP photographer Santiago Llanquin persuaded a telephone operator to open a line. We reached a hotel in Mendoza, Argentina, and somehow kept that line open for days. AP photographer Eduardo DiBaia rushed from Buenos Aires to set up a makeshift bureau in the hotel, defying censors and transmitting news and photos of the attacks to the outside world.
Meanwhile, just getting back to the office was beyond risky. Crossing a central avenue, we were blocked by a tank and a soldier who shouted at people to go home. We ran to a nearby hotel, but a worker closed the doors, just as a column of “black beret” commandos advanced toward us and shot at the hotel’s second floor, destroying a beautiful glass dome that fell in shards at our feet.
They had been spooked by hotel guests taking flash photos; their burst of gunfire wounded the eye of a hotel maid.
An Italian tourist eventually persuaded the hotel to give us shelter. Meanwhile, our AP colleagues kept working, despite orders to turn off all electricity during the military’s curfew. They put metal filing cabinets against the windows, but a glimmer of light still shone through, drawing gunfire. One bullet hit our office ceiling, another lodged in a window frame.
By Wednesday morning, soldiers occupied every corner. We had to walk quickly with our hands up. Food supplies were scarce downtown — a problem resolved by “Dona Nena,” who ran an elegant brothel one floor below us. She took pity on us, and sent large pots of food upstairs.
We were already collecting reports of mass arrests, fighting, and deaths. Then we witnessed it first-hand. As Martinez and I drove home that Friday, we stopped at the sight of firefighters trying to pull at least four naked bodies from the Mapocho river. They were among the first of 3,197 people who were killed during the dictatorship, all but about 100 of whom were targeted by the military. About a thousand of those victims have never again been seen alive.
Sergio Carrasco, a correspondent and regional editor in Santiago, Chile, retired in 2010 after 57 years with The Associated Press.
Luis Martinez, Santiago Llanquin and Eduardo DiBaia contributed to the verification and confirmation of the events described.