Not all the story has been told until now, but action rivaling the best spy thriller happened this month as Arabs, Communists, western Europeans and Americans rallied to help save Salt Lake snake researcher William E. Haast after a rare viper bit him.
It involved Iranians risking their lives to send antivenin to "Great Satan" America; Germans acting as go-betweens to avoid any suspicion that might result from a package sent directly from Iran to America; the Soviets sending military aircraft to transport other antivenin; pilots racing deadlines; and the White House awakening its staff and working around the clock to orchestrate events.The story even brought a standing ovation from White House senior staff members for Utahn Steve Studdert, an aide to President Bush for special projects, who was the man behind the action.
It also shows how people of different ideologies, races and nations can sometimes overcome their differences to help even just one fellow human who is in trouble far away.
The action started for Studdert late one Thursday after one of his 20-hour-or-so days at the White House. The phone rang as he arrived home.
"I was tired. So I grabbed the phone and said in a pretty gruff voice, `Hello.' It was the White House operator. She said she had a call about a snake bite, of all things. She said she originally thought it was a weirdo call, but now she wasn't sure," Studdert said.
"I took the call, and it was from a man I knew 15 years ago in Utah. He was an associate of the man bitten by the snake. I had just been in Utah and gave a speech about how George Bush really cares about people. This man read a story about it in the Deseret News, so he decided to call me and ask for help."
Studdert learned that antivenin for the snake bite was only available in Iran - where the United States has no diplomatic ties. He was told the snake may also produce two different types of venom during its lifetime, and the antivenin for one type was likely only to be found in a remote city in the Soviet Union.
Doctors at that time also expected they could keep Haast alive and stable until 2 p.m. or so on Saturday - just days away - without the other exotic antivenins.
Studdert said he called the White House and found that his assistant was still there, so he had him begin work on the project. He then called in the White House staffer in charge of scheduling air flights to work out all possible ways of transporting antivenin from Tehran, Iran, and Tashkent, Soviet Union, to Salt Lake City by 2 p.m. the next Saturday.
Studdert and his team worked through the night. He said negotiations in Iran "were on a person-to-person level, not a government-to-government level" because no diplomatic relations exist there. But a source was found who could ship the anti-venin to Frankfurt, West Germany.
The package could not be sent directly to America, which Ayatollah Khomeini calls the "Great Satan." Studdert won't talk about exactly what happened in Iran because "lives might be at stake."
German officials agreed to help whisk the anti-venin around normal customs procedures and onto another flight to Paris, where it was to meet a supersonic Concorde. French officials also agreed to help work around normal customs.
"The layover in Paris was only supposed to be a half-hour. But the plane from Frankfurt was an hour late," Studdert said. But when the plane landed, the pilot taxied quickly up to where the Concorde was still awaiting takeoff. An official ran the antivenin from one plane to the other.
When it arrived in New York City, the antivenin had to quickly be transported by a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency helicopter from John F. Kennedy Airport to LaGuardia Airport to make connections to Salt Lake City. The antivenin eventually reached Salt Lake City about 2:15 p.m. Saturday, Studdert said.
Meanwhile, the White House discovered that no flights were scheduled for days in the remote Soviet city of Tashkent where the other antivenin waited. Soviet officials decided to send a special military plane to pick up the antivenin, and connections were made to put it on a Concorde.
Also, some of the rare antivenin was found unexpectedly at a London laboratory. "From the time it was found to the time that the plane it had to be on was going to take off was an hour," Studdert said. A consulate official rode in an English police car with siren blaring to deliver it in time.
At one point, Studdert asked his staff if anyone had figured out how much everything was costing. They answered that no one had even asked to be paid anything.
At the next White House senior staff meeting, chief of staff John Sununu asked Studdert to give a report "about that snake-bite thing." When he did, Studdert said he was surprised to see the other staffers stand together and give him an ovation.