National Geographic : 1991 Aug
On Assignment SDf"isaster is my beat," says Senior Assistant Editor TOM CANBY of his three decades at the National Geographic Society. "I've covered famines and earthquakes, floods and droughts, but this was my first time in a war zone. And once is enough." Last March Tom traveled through Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to report on the war's environmental toll for this issue. Within earshot of gunfire from Iraq's civil conflict, he came across remnants of a retreating Iraqi convoy, destroyed from the air. Blackened vehicles were draped with the charred corpses of Iraqi sol diers, their flesh gnawed by dogs. Clothes and appliances looted from Kuwaiti homes were strewed among mess kits, antipersonnel mines, and the faded photograph of what appeared to be a man's wife and daughters. "The destruction the Iraqis wrought on Kuwait-the murder and torture, the burning and dyna miting, the spilling of oil-was so barbaric as to defy understanding," Tom says. As the GEOGRAPHIC'S sci ence editor he was appalled that Iraqi scientists had, under orders, methodically looted instruments from laboratories, watched by their Kuwaiti counterparts with whom they once had collaborated. Smoke from Kuwait's 500-plus flaming wellheads produced dark ness at noon, and Tom's surgical mask, supplied by the Society's Medical Division, soon became stained with falling soot and oil droplets. "And my shoes picked up an ever thickening coating of oil and sand; soon I was standing half an inch taller. The oil was incredibly gummy; before I came home, I hap pily abandoned those shoes in my hotel room." Tom recalls hair-raising drives along oil-slick roads where, a month later, two British journalists died when their vehicle slipped into a pool of burning oil. While investigating the Iraqi engineered oil spill, Tom managed to get a scoop for the magazine. He chanced on four daring Kuwaitis STEVEMcCURRY,MAGNUM who had outsmarted Iraqis bent on opening oil pipes into the gulf. Se cretly closing an outlet valve but set ting its indicator to "open," the oil workers prevented 8.5 million bar rels from entering the gulf and per haps delivering a lethal blow to the wounded ecosystem. In the course of his Geographic career-which began when he won a competition to write books for the Society-Tom has scuba dived to a submerged archaeological site in a Florida sinkhole, toured the sewers of the Vatican to report on the world of rats, penetrated the secrecy of the Soviet space program, and shared the anguish of villagers faced with famine in Bangladesh and the Sahel. His work has been rec ognized with awards from the Aviation/Space Writers Associa tion, AAAS-Westinghouse, and Western Writers of America. Despite his passion for travel, for Tom there's no place like home. He still lives in the little Maryland community of Sandy Spring where he was born. NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC(ISSN 0027-9358) IS PUBLISHEDMONTHLYBY THENATIONALGEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY,17THANDM STS.N.W., WASHINGTON,D. C. 20036. $21.00 A YEAR,$2.65 A COPY. SECOND-CLASS POSTAGEPAIDAT WASHINGTON,D. C., AND ELSEWHERE.POSTMASTER? SENDADDRESSCHANGESTO NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC,P.O . BOX2174, WASHINGTON,D. C. 20013.