In an instant, Scud transforms troop haven into hell

February 26, 1991|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Sun Staff Correspondent

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- The voices of anxious, angry soldiers fearing for the lives of their buddies cut through the wailing sirens of more than a dozen ambulances last night.

They shouted at those who dared to come close to see the cruel evidence of a war that took American lives indiscriminately.

"Those are our guys in there. Get out of here," one soldier screamed.

Other men, choking back tears, were struggling to clear through smoking rubble, searching for belongings and signs of life.

Spc. Joel Maxwell, 32, of Baltimore picked out what he could. "This is my cot," he told George Manes, a reporter for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. "It looks like it was ground zero."

Parts of a single, unguided Scud missile had torn through the roof of a building considered by more than 100 U.S. soldiers to be their home and haven in this part of the war zone.

At least 27 U.S. soldiers were killed and 98 were injured, according the White House and allied officials.

"There was a huge explosion, then flames shot into the air," said Greg Siegle, a journalist who had been passing nearby. "It was an inferno."

The attack came less than 10 minutes after air raid sirens echoed through this eastern Saudi Arabian city at 8:30 p.m.

Although Dhahran has been vulnerable to Iraqi missile attacks throughout the war, so many have been intercepted or have fallen harmlessly into the desert and the Persian Gulf that people were beginning not to fear them.

But this one struck with a vengeance.

"It looked like a Patriot took it out, but it could have been the warhead" that hit the building, said a British soldier dressed in a chemical warfare suit and carrying a chemical detection monitor.

Central command headquarters said no Patriot missile had been sent up because the Scud already was breaking up in flight.

"I checked to see if there's anything nasty," the British soldier said, reading a digital meter by the light of floodlamps brought to the scene by firefighters. "There aren't any."

The blast blew out the corrugated metal walls of the four-story, prefabricated building, leaving a tall skeleton of steel girders, some of them twisted yet strangely still in place. Sleeping bags, combat boots and duffel bags were visible in the rubble.

The blades of two white CH-47 Chinook medical transport helicopters and a UH-1 Huey stirred up the desert sand, creating blinding clouds.

Dozens of Saudi police cars and U.S. military police vehicles with mounted machine guns arrived to keep at bay the swelling crowd of motorists who had abandoned their cars to view the destruction.

The injured soldiers were flown to the 85th Evacuation Hospital and the Air Transportable clinic, both in Dhahran.

Had the missile component struck anywhere else in the area, it still could have resulted in tragedy.

The gutted building was one of two used as military housing, located on industrial property behind a busy toy store and the Souk's Supermarket and shopping center, a popular stopover for soldiers lured by the availability of soda, doughnuts, rock music cassettes, English language newspapers and pay telephones.

Both retail centers were open when the attack occurred. The toy store, large enough to contain amusement rides, had been packed with children and parents.

The barracks were close to the intersection of a heavily traveled highway leading to Dhahran International Airport and a road to the Saudi coastal town of Khobar.

The airport and Dhahran International Hotel, where the U.S. military runs an information bureau for journalists covering the war, are barely three miles away.

The Scud component also barely missed a housing compound for 1,200 Asian workers of the Al-Magar Co.

Many of them swarmed along a retaining wall overlooking the gutted military dormitory.

"Pick your disaster," said one onlooker. He pointed to about 10 petroleum tanker trucks parked less than 100 yards from the place U.S. troops had called their wartime home.

"I guess that could have been me," said Specialist Maxwell, who had been in his cot 20 minutes before the air raid sirens sounded. "It's just coincidence, or God, or something, that it wasn't."

He had gone to the barracks next door, a masonry building that withstood the blast.

"No, I don't really feel lucky right now," he said. "I don't know how I feel."

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