How Ali Beat The Odds

Bob Simon On How A Young Iraqi Boy Beat The Odds

Four years ago, the face of a young boy was splashed across the front pages of newspapers and television screens around the world. There was something angelic about the face of a 12-year-old Iraqi boy with bad burns and no arms.

His name was Ali Abbas, and he was quickly becoming the icon of the war in Iraq. Just 12 days after the war began, Ali Abbas lost his parents, his brother, 13 other members of his family, and his arms, when a stray American bomb demolished his house outside Baghdad. His body was covered in third degree burns and no one thought he would survive. But he did.

As correspondent Bob Simon reports, he is not an icon any more. He is a teenager. And we thought we would track him down; find out where he is, and how he is doing.

60 Minutes caught up with him in London, in a park, about to go on a bike ride one bright morning last summer. His bike was especially made for him.

He was one of hundreds of cyclists gathered for the start of a 60 mile ride to Oxford. Ali Abbas was a member of a team called the Baghdad Bikers.

He steers his special bike by moving his shoulders. For Ali, his new bike was going to give him something he had missed.

"It make me feel that I could do everything, you know. It make me think I'm normal, you know," Ali explains.

The Baghdad Bikers were off to Oxford, 60 miles. Ali had never done more than 10 miles on a bike. But that wasn't going to stop him. Not after everything he had been through. Four years ago, the thought of a bike ride or even of England would have been preposterous.

Even when he was lying in a Baghdad hospital bed, there was something about him. "His face was like an old Italian renaissance painting. He had a biblical countenance. It was the absolute face of innocence," says Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker magazine, who was the first westerner to see Ali, and the first reporter to bring him into the public eye.

Anderson stumbled across Ali in a decrepit Baghdad hospital the day after the bombing. It was the spring of 2003. Anderson asked to see the hospital's worst case. Doctors took him to Ali.

"And it seemed absolutely impossible that two arms could just be roasted and the rest of the body remain intact," Anderson recalls.

On his hospital bed, Ali bit his lip, tried to hide the pain of amputated arms and burns that blackened so much of his body. He didn't always succeed. Even his doctors couldn't bear to watch. But no one thought his pain would last very long.

When Anderson left the hospital that day, he did not expect to see Ali again – he expected the boy to die.

But then, his picture was published around the world and the calls started coming in. In Britain, Diana Morgan had just started her job at London's Limbless Association.

"We got many, many phone calls from Americans. Pilots of private planes wanted to fly into Baghdad. People phoning up. Women sobbing, sobbing, 'If he gets out, I want to adopt him,'" Morgan remembers.

Money started pouring into the Limbless Association. A half million dollars in just 10 days. A fund was set up in Ali's name, as a memoriam.

"We started getting word back through the head doctor who said, 'He won't survive. The injuries are too appalling,'" Morgan recalls.