PARIS, France — The last chunk of Iron Curtain — Ceausescu’s Romania — suddenly teetered in December 1989. By Christmas, it was a blood-spattered, rusted relic.
On the morning of Dec. 21, from a balcony above a massive crowd, Nicolae Ceausescu droned on about his own glory. Muttering below erupted into an angry roar.
Days earlier, troops had brutally quelled an uprising near the Yugoslav border. Rumors of massacre turned many against the megalomaniac who had ruled them for decades.
The crowd surged forward, and the durable dictator took half a step backward. Watching on television in Paris, I felt the electricity. The balance of fear had shifted.
I ran to the Associated Press photo desk. Within an hour, we organized a charter flight to Bucharest. The French military cleared us. We did not ask the Romanians.
As our aircraft approached the pitch-dark Bucharest airport, landing lights switched on. At the immigration desk, an officer stared at me without saying a word.
“How are things going?” I asked. “Better now,” he replied, and he stamped my passport.
Our little band from Paris and another from Rome commandeered a bus to the outskirts of the city. Several of us flagged down a battered little Dacia. We asked the driver what was happening.
“Oh,” he replied with a wide grin, “a small revolution in a small place.”
We found our way to the 13-story state television tower, freshly renamed Free Romania Television, under heavy siege by Ceausescu’s holdout militia, the Securitate.
A National Salvation Committee had claimed power and was holed up on the third floor as rocket-propelled grenades blew away entire rooms above them.
For days, Securitate snipers picked off Romanians, who dashed across downtown streets and dove for cover. Scared kids who had never held a rifle manned roadblocks.
At the hospitals we counted corpses and interviewed survivors. “Democracy, freedom,” one teenager said to me. “I just want to savor those words in my mouth.”
We toured Ceausescu’s palace, the largest building in Europe, and the publishing house that translated his silly thoughts, in mountains of books, into a dozen languages.
At the secret room where people believed police bugged every conversation in Romania we found six open-reel tape recorders, some broken, and a bank of old Soviet phones.
The television station was heart of it all. It broke from Stalinist propaganda on that first day, when army units joined protesters to send Ceausescu fleeing for his life.
“We’ve won. We’ve won,” poet Murica Dinescu shouted into the camera.
Early the next morning, news editor Victor Ionescu announced on the air: “We are under attack.” He urged people to rally outside the TV tower in a human shield.
Immediately, a crowd formed. People chanted, “Freedom! Freedom!” until gunfire broke out. They scattered and regrouped. They shouted, “We won’t go!” and they didn’t.
A ragtag platoon of defenders drove back the assault. Later that weekend, Securitate remnants struck again. Infiltrators stabbed people in the hallways, killing three.
For a few hours, TV screens went blank. But that was only a technical glitch. Romania was governed from a hectic studio littered with empty bottles, cracked mugs and half-eaten sandwiches, run by people who did not sleep for days.
“It is madness here, madness,” said Gratiela Ripeanu, whose external relations job under the old regime had consisted mainly of shaking hands with fraternal Bulgarians.
She shepherded countless foreign TV crews through an obstacle course of gun barrels, roiling crowds and skittish guards who looked for explosives in ballpoint pen refills. Six body searches separated the street from the studio.
“We don’t know what we are doing anymore, but we’re doing it,” she said.
Elena Maria Ionescu, a news writer and Victor’s wife, helped out in the studio, partly because her office was a gaping hole in the eighth floor.
Section chiefs and janitors alike beamed with pride at the unflickering image they broadcast across the fearful nation. In the face of rumors and threats, the reassuring voices on television maintained momentum.
Unlikely heroes emerged. Marin Constantin, who edited youth programs, took it upon himself to make sure the eighth-floor occupants made it through the night.
When the shooting started, he herded everyone into a hallway protected from ricochet. Finding no way to douse the ceiling lights, he deftly smashed them with a chair.
When heavy fighting began, his grin broadened. To buck up spirits, he sang an old national hymn that was almost forgotten during Ceausescu’s reign:
“Wake up, Romania, from the mortal sleep into which you have been lulled by the evil tyrant.”
By Christmas morning, Bucharest bristled with Ceausescu reports. He and his wife were captured on the way to the Soviet border. But were they? Would he fight back?
Then Free Romanian Television delivered the coup de grace, a last look at Ceausescu, pierced with executioners’ bullets in an upcountry courtyard.
Of the old Evil Empire, only the Soviet Union remained.