FORWARD OPERATING BASE MAREZ, Iraq – A sudden, pinpoint attack killed more than 20 and wounded at least 60 others in a dining-hall tent inside a U.S. military compound near Mosul yesterday.
It was the deadliest single attack on U.S. troops since the start of the Iraq war.
Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, spokesman for the Coalition Press Information Center, said 19 U.S. troops were killed, along with three other soldiers of unknown nationality. However, a military spokesman in Mosul said 14 U.S. troops died in the blast.
The dead also included an Iraqi soldier and at least six civilian workers from the Halliburton subsidiary KBR and its subcontractors.
Identities of the other dead were still being determined.
Military briefers said the attack came from a rocket, a mortar or possibly a planted bomb.
A radical Muslim group, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, claimed responsibility, The Associated Press reported.
Two of the slain soldiers were from the Richmond-based 276th Engineer Battalion of the Virginia National Guard. They are the first fatalities for the unit since it arrived in Iraq nearly a year ago.
Hundreds of U.S. soldiers had just sat down for lunch about noon when the blast hit the giant dining tent.
The force of the explosion knocked soldiers off their feet and out of their seats. A fireball enveloped the top of the tent, and pellet-sized shrapnel sprayed into the men.
Amid the screaming and thick smoke that followed, quick-thinking soldiers turned their lunch tables upside down, placed the wounded on them and gently carried them into the parking lot.
“Medic! Medic!” soldiers shouted.
Medics rushed into the tent and hustled the rest of the wounded out on stretchers.
Scores of troops crammed into concrete bomb shelters outside. Others wobbled around the tent and collapsed, dazed by the blast.
“I can’t hear! I can’t hear!” one female soldier cried as a friend hugged her.
Near the front entrance to the chow hall, troops tended a soldier with a gaping head wound. Within minutes, they zipped him into a black body bag. Three more bodies were in the parking lot then.
Soldiers scrambled back into the hall to check for more wounded. The explosion blew out a huge hole in the roof of the tent. Lunch trays and overturned tables and chairs covered the floor.
Soldiers growled angrily about the attack and swore as they stomped away.
Sgt. Evan Byler, of the 276th, steadied himself on one of the concrete bomb shelters. He was eating chicken tenders and macaroni when the blast hit. The blast knocked him out of his chair. Byler had taken off his shirt and wrapped it around a seriously wounded soldier.
Byler held the bloody shirt in his hand, not quite sure what to do with it.
“It’s not the first close call I have had here,” said Byler, a Fauquier County, Va., resident who survived a blast from an improvised explosive device while riding in a vehicle earlier this year.
Byler started walking back to his base when he saw a soldier collapse from shock on the side of the road. Byler and 1st Lt. Shawn Otto of Williamsburg, Va., also of the 276th, put the grieving soldier on a passing pickup truck.
The 276th, with about 500 troops, had made it a year without losing a soldier and is preparing to return home in about a month.
“We almost made it. We almost made it to the end without getting somebody killed,” Otto said glumly.
At least four other soldiers with the 276th were injured, but it was not clear how serious their wounds are.
“This is the worst day of my life,” Brig. Gen. Carter F. Ham said at a briefing held at a palace once used by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s sons. “It’s times like these when [our troops] really come shining through.”
Tears welled in his eyes, and his voice was thick with emotion. “This hurts, this really hurts.”
The military asked that the dead not be identified until families could be notified.
Insurgents have fired mortars at the chow hall more than 30 times this year. One round killed a female soldier with the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, in the summer as she scrambled for cover in a bomb shelter. Workers are building a new steel-and-concrete chow hall for the soldiers just down the dusty dirt road.
Lt. Dawn Wheeler, a member of the 276th from Centreville, Va., was waiting in line for chicken tenders when a round hit on the other side of a wall from her. A soldier who had been standing beside her was on the ground, struggling with shrapnel buried deep in his neck.
“We all have angels on us,” she said as she pulled away in a Humvee.
Wheeler quickly joined other officers from the 276th for an emergency meeting minutes after the blast.
Maj. James Zollar, the unit’s acting commander, spoke to more than a dozen of his officers and urged them to keep their troops focused on their missions.
“This is a tragic, tragic thing for us, but we still have missions,” he told them. “It’s us, the leaders, who have to pull them together.”
Two hours after the attack, insurgents fired mortar rounds on the Mosul airfield, injuring a U.S. soldier.
Also after the attack, 300 to 500 students in Mosul protested the occupation of Iraq, the perceived illegal detention of religious leaders and raids against mosques near the University of Mosul.
Just hours before the mess-hall blast, Zollar had awarded a Purple Heart to a soldier from the 276th who was wounded in a mortar attack on another part of the base in October.
Zollar eventually turned the emergency meeting over to Chaplain Eddie Barnett. He led the group in prayer.
“Help us now, God, in this time of this very tragic circumstance,” Barnett said. “We pray for your healing upon our wounded soldiers.”
With heads hung low, the soldiers trudged outside. They had work to do.