After several aborted escape efforts, dozens of employees of the AT&T Co. succeeded in leaving Kuwait with help from a special crisis center set up by the company thousands of miles away, AT&T officials said Thursday.
The story of the exodus of AT&T's workers - among them many Americans - from Kuwait into Saudi Arabia and then home is the first detailed account of how a major American corporation mobilized to handle the crisis in the Persian Gulf and how workers actually made their way to safety in car caravans that snaked through the desert for 20 hours.Although other American companies such as the Boeing Co. and Westinghouse Electric Corp. have made it possible for the dependents of employees to leave neighboring countries, detailed information on the fate of American workers in Kuwait and Iraq has been kept confidential by companies that fear for their safety.
The evacuation of the AT&T employees was the most dramatic test yet of the special situation room and crisis management center in suburban New Jersey that the company created two years ago to communicate with employees during periods of turmoil and to assist them in getting to safety.
At 3:30 a.m. EDT on the day of the invasion, the crisis network started crackling with calls, the first one going out to R. Bruce Barr, AT&T's director of auditing and security. Barr said in a telephone interview Thursday that by 4 a.m., he had activated the crisis center, which is equipped with maps, communications equipment, telephones and computers. Since then, the operation has run around the clock, monitoring the situation in the Middle East and communicating with families of employees.
A telephone line was left open to a location in Kuwait City from which most AT&T employees could be contacted. Employees were called every hour. Contact was made seven and eight times a day with Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where the company has its regional headquarters for the Middle East.
Besides Americans, there were Canadians, British, Dutch, Filipinos and a Sri Lankan working in Kuwait for AT&T on various communications projects. The company also has several hundred employees in Saudi Arabia, with 30 nationalities represented there.
The company said a small number of AT&T employees remains in Kuwait and Iraq along with the thousands of Westerners who are trapped there and that the last indirect contact with them was last week.
Telephone service to Kuwait was cut the day after the invasion. About 1,000 calls a day are coming out of Iraq to the United States, company officials said, but few are getting through to Iraq. The company said 87 circuits are being added to Saudi Arabia.
Barr said managers in the crisis center talked over the telephone in general terms to communicate plans about getting to safety or evacuating employees. Then the parties on the line would ``validate' to see if they understood each other.