`The Tanks Hesitated, Then Lurched Forward...'

As the troops and tanks of the Red Army cracked down on the budding Lithuanian state, BUSINESS WEEK Moscow Bureau Manager Rose Brady witnessed some of the most terrifying moments. Her report:

When the special paratroop squads first arrived in Vilnius, the air was filled with a calm defiance. People rallied outside Parliament and kept a close watch on key buildings around town. But the fluttering flags and national songs made the air festive.

Around 2 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 13, that ended abruptly. From my hotel, the first thing I heard was an explosion. Then, shooting began. Soon, I was hearing reports that tanks had rolled to the capital's TV tower atop a hill in the northern section of the city.

Racing there by car, I found a scene of chaos: billowing smoke, the roar and clanking of tanks, everywhere the crack of gunfire. Lithuanians, beside themselves in furious dismay, screamed curses. Above me, lined up across the hilltop and in the yard of a nearby apartment block, I saw hundreds of protesters stand and shout "Fascist!" at the Soviet soldiers and "Lietuva" (Lithuania) in lament of their imperiled republic.

INTIMIDATION. I didn't see the troops do their worst damage. But as I stood on a road to the TV tower, the scene was brutal enough. Two tanks, belching an irritating smoke, kept shifting position and swinging their cannons in a sort of mad intimidation. Not far away, I saw where three tanks had plowed over a barricade of passenger cars. The tanks kept their guns trained on the protesters, yet the protesters held their ground. Vitaus Bodoskas, his hair soaked with water the soldiers sprayed at the crowd, couldn't believe what he'd seen: "We didn't do anything that they should come to us with tanks."

I met a 43-year-old lawyer, Teresa Kosloskine, who saw the tanks first arrive. She told me that she saw young students lying down in the tanks' path. Several hundred other protesters, standing hand in hand, backed them up. At first, she said, the tanks hesitated. Then, without notice, they lurched forward, knocked people down, and ran over some of those lying prone.

Soon enough, I saw the result of the violence: The bodies of two boys, wrapped in sheets, were on the ground next to some ambulances. They had been shot in the yard of an apartment building. One, I was told, was just 15. Jolita Maslunita, a slender 23-year-old woman, was sure Moscow had made Vilnius' TV tower its first target because "it is our only connection with the world." She added: "We are not afraid, even now. . . . We must have our own free Lithuania, even though we could all be wounded."

The soldiers handily occupied the tower, taking just five or six minutes for the task. Yet for about two more hours, the gunfire continued. One man told me many of the dead and injured had not been attended to for up to two hours. "All these people killed or wounded," he said. "I can't believe the army can take such actions."

LAST BROADCAST. To a foreigner, too, it was all hard to believe. Spotlights flashed crazily. Loudspeakers blared a speech by an unidentified official, who urged people to go home. But the crowd around me just kept yelling slogans, especially, pitiably, "Freedom for Lithuania." We also heard the last broadcast by Radio Vilnius: an appeal to the world for help. Then, the radio went dead. Suddenly, I found myself wondering, is this the way a civil war begins?

After 6 a.m., a light snow began to fall. I walked down the hill with Romas Chiskavicius, a major in Lithuania's highway police. "I have never seen such an awful scene in my life or in the movies," he said. "I fully believe it is possible many of our people will be put into prison."

I hurried back to Freedom Square, outside Parliament. As dawn broke, more than 200,000 tense Lithuanians waited for the tanks to roll into the square. They never came. They had delivered their ugly message on the hill. I spoke with a husky worker with red hair. "It will be the same for Moscow residents," he predicted. "This is just the first step for a total crackdown in the Soviet Union."