The bullet clanged into my helmet, smacking the Kevlar into the left side of my skull and throwing me to the ground.
The shock of being floored by something I couldn’t see confused me: it took a few seconds to realise I’d been hit in the head. I could hear a metallic ringing in my ears.
My first thoughts were: “I’m still alive but I’m dying, slowly bleeding out; my brains must be on the floor. Perhaps the bullet only went through a bit of my head and that’s why I can see and think.”
The image of a messy puddle of brain matter next to me flashed through my mind. These thoughts were quickly replaced with the realisation that I couldn’t feel any pain, apart from a thumping headache that I’d had all day from having only one contact lens. My next thought was that I was still thinking. My brain was still working.
That thought was quickly replaced with another one: “Perhaps this is what happens when you die.”
I ran both my hands inside my helmet, checking for blood and praying I wouldn’t find any. This was tricky because the chin strap was so tight that I couldn’t get my hands all the way inside.
It took a few more swipes to confirm that I wasn’t bleeding from my skull and that my brains weren’t in the sand: my hands were covered in black grit and dirt.
No blood. Good. The fear of dying, followed by the elation of being alive, made me forget where I was for a moment. Then I looked up to see a Libyan rebel gaping at me, frozen to the spot in shock.
Other rebels had fled when they saw the round hit me. I could see their feet racing away as I lay there.
I realised I needed to get up. Bullets were still flying overhead; splashes of dirt kicked up around me. I dragged myself up and ran towards cover, racing around the corner of a building, where I leant against a wall, trying to get my breath back.
I took my helmet off and checked my head again for blood. Nothing. Rebel fighters lined up against a wall on the opposite side of the alleyway looked on impassively.
It was my fault. The Sunday Times photographer, Paul Conroy, and I had been crouching down behind a red gate on the side of a road leading towards Colonel Gadaffi’s palace.
We’d seen machinegun fire pummel the gate 30 minutes earlier. The bullets had ripped fist-sized holes in the thin metal. But rebel soldiers had made mad dashes through the now open gate, racing across the road to the relative safety of a mosque opposite.
We moved from our position, attaching ourselves to another band of rebels preparing to make the dash. We paused at the gate.
Rebel pick-up trucks drove up the road from our right, blasting deafening barrages of anti-aircraft fire from their mounted guns at Gadaffi’s palace. The trucks were still taking small arms fire, sending rounds pinging down the road.
“I’ll go first and you follow,” said Paul. I nodded. Paul timed his sprint to coincide with the next barrage of anti-aircraft fire, which he hoped would pin down the Gadaffi shooters long enough for him to race to the mosque. As he made cover, the rebel 4ft behind him had his arm blown off by a bullet.
I knew the gate was poor cover. I got up to make the sprint but a group of rebels dashed out ahead of me.
I didn’t want to be the last man in the group, fearing that Gadaffi’s snipers may have honed their aim by the time they saw me sprinting. So I watched a few rebel pick-up trucks race by and waited for the incoming rounds to die down. Another group of rebels joined me by the gate.
That’s when the bullet knocked me to the floor. It must have pierced the gate to my left, slowing down the round just enough to prevent it from passing through the Kevlar and into my skull.
Paul didn’t see me get hit: he was too busy treating the rebel whose arm had been blown off.
He found me smoking a cigarette and drinking water on the curb, talking to a rebel in a pink T-shirt who was trying to persuade me to go to an ambulance around the corner.
“What happened to you?” Paul asked.
“I got shot in the head,” I replied, grinning stupidly.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Okay, well get up and stop whingeing,” he laughed.
We found more water in the mosque, glugged it down and went back up to the road. This time we took a left before the gate and sprinted over rubble and past a destroyed house to cover.
We continued pushing into Gadaffi’s compound with the rebels. About an hour later, a bullet hit Paul’s camera and sent it flying from his hands.
As we came out of the palace, we bumped into Reuters correspondent Peter Graff. “You work for a Sunday Miles. What the hell are you doing getting shot in the head on a Tuesday?” He said.
Back at base that night, Paul dug the bullet out of my helmet with his knife. The round had gone in at an angle — another reason why it had failed to pierce the armour.
Paul tried to persuade me to give him the helmet. “Lightning doesn’t strike twice. You’re 20m times less likely to be hit in the head after that. So statistically it’s better for me to have the helmet,” he said.
This comes from the same man who later reasoned that the chances of discovering a bomb on a plane are about fifteen million to one; the chances of having two bombs on a plane are about 75 million to one; so therefore statistically it’s five times safer to bring you’re own bomb onto a plane because the chances of two people carrying a bomb onto a plane are pretty thin.
I ignored his twisted logic; I’m keeping the helmet.