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Chaos Engulfs Mess-Hall Tent After Lunchtime Explosion

December 22, 2004|Jeremy Redmon | Richmond Times-Dispatch

FORWARD OPERATING BASE MAREZ, Iraq — Hundreds of U.S. soldiers had just sat down for lunch when the giant tent that served as a mess hall was blasted open.

The explosion knocked soldiers off their feet and out of their seats, and sprayed them with shrapnel. A fireball enveloped the roof, which was left with a gaping hole.

Amid screaming and thick smoke, quick-thinking soldiers turned their lunch tables upside down, placed the wounded on them and gently carried them into the parking lot.

"Medic! Medic!" they yelled.

Medics rushed into the tent and hustled the rest of the wounded out on stretchers.

Scores of troops crammed into concrete bomb shelters nearby. 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 tent, troops tended a soldier with a gaping head wound. Shortly afterward, they zipped him into a black body bag. Three more bodies were in the parking lot.

Soldiers scrambled back into the hall to check for more wounded. Puddles of blood, lunch trays and overturned tables and chairs covered the floor.

Sgt. Evan Byler, of the Richmond, Va.-based 276th Engineer Battalion, steadied himself against one of the bomb shelters.

He had been eating chicken and macaroni in the mess tent. The blast knocked him out of his chair. When the smoke cleared, Byler took off his shirt and wrapped it around a seriously wounded soldier.

Byler later held the bloody shirt in his hand, unsure 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 a roadside bomb this year.

The 276th, with about 500 troops, had made it a year without losing a soldier and was preparing to return home in about a month.

"We almost made it. We almost made it to the end without getting somebody killed," Lt. Shawn Otto said.

The military said a rocket attack might have caused the explosion.

Insurgents have fired mortar rounds at the mess hall more than 30 times this year. Workers are building a new steel and concrete facility nearby.

At an emergency meeting minutes after the blast, Maj. James Zollar, the unit's acting commander, spoke to more than a dozen of his officers in a voice thick with emotion. He 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."

Zollar eventually turned the meeting over to Chaplain Eddie Barnett, who 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."

Redmon was on assignment with U.S. troops at Forward Operating Base Marez when it came under attack. His story was transmitted by Associated Press.

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