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Couple's Scene of Merriment Turns to 'Battlefield' in a Flash

A festive procession was underway at an Amman hotel wedding when a bomber struck. Doctors attending a conference were able to give aid.

November 11, 2005|Ashraf Khalil and Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writers

AMMAN, Jordan — It was time for the zaffa, the festive and noisy musical procession that is a must at most Arab weddings. Dozens of formally dressed couples and families, along with musicians in traditional garb, stood together in the Radisson SAS hotel lobby, waiting for the bride and groom to emerge from the elevator.

It was supposed to be the couple's happiest occasion, but little did they know that soon after the doors opened Wednesday night, they would lose their fathers, along with many other family members, in the cruel explosion that was about to take place.

"The musicians and dancers gathered around them in two rows," recalled Hassan Fehmi, 44, a Detroit physician who had just checked into the Radisson. "A lot of people like myself were just watching and clapping. It was kind of nice."

The newlyweds moved slowly through the gleaming hotel lobby and into the Philadelphia ballroom, surrounded by cheering friends and family members.

Moments later, they, along with Fehmi and many others, found themselves face down on the floor, covered in dust and debris. A suicide bomber had detonated an explosives belt just yards away, in the middle of the wedding celebration.

"It was someone who was watching the zaffa in the crowd just like me," said Fehmi, a native of Lebanon who has lived in Detroit for 18 years.

Most of the 56 people killed Wednesday in the nearly simultaneous suicide bombings that rocked three Western-operated hotels in Jordan's capital were guests, employees and wedding participants at the Radisson. The death toll might have been higher if the hotel hadn't been filling up with doctors like Fehmi arriving from around the world for a medical conference that had been scheduled to begin Thursday in the same ballroom.

Said Abu Hasna, an emergency room doctor from the United Arab Emirates, was knocked from his bed on the second floor, directly above the wedding hall. He had spotted the festive pre-wedding scene when checking in and briefly considered staying to watch, but decided to get some rest instead.

He rushed downstairs to investigate the cause of the impact, encountering a scene of ghastly chaos.

"It was a battlefield, exactly a battlefield," he said. "Bodies scattered everywhere. People panicked and running in every direction. Smoke coming out of the banquet hall."

Abu Hasna said he moved through the lobby toward the wedding hall, encountering people torn and broken in various ways and strewn like toys. He saw the groom, Ashraf Akhras, screaming over his father's body. Abu Hasna recalled Akhras saying, "My father! My father!"

"Blood was coming out of his mouth," the groom told him.

The doctor performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on the older man and got him breathing. Then he turned to a hotel employee, Nayef al Sari, showed him how to do CPR and told him to continue while Abu Hasna moved on to help others.

The fathers of the bride and groom later died of their injuries.

Abu Hasna tried to enter the banquet hall but was turned back by smoke and a partially collapsed ceiling. Some survivors lay under tables, shrieking. When a piece of the ceiling fell, the physician lurched backward, tripped on something and fell. It was a body.

Everywhere he looked, victims bore gruesome wounds. One was missing an eye. A girl's leg had snapped and been torn open. Nearby, a man lay dead, his neck impaled by a piece of wood. The doctor treated the ones he could and pronounced some others dead.

Fehmi, who also moved through the corridors seeking to provide medical assistance, recalled seeing a middle-aged woman sitting peacefully in a chair near the bar amid the chaos. He grabbed her wrist but found no pulse. Then he noticed that the lower half of her body was covered in blood.

"She must have been hit by something in the stomach," he said. "I still remember her face."

A day after the attack, Fehmi, Abu Hasna and other witnesses remained stunned at the seeming robotic coldness of an attacker who could hit such a target. Fehmi dwelt on the thought that the bomber had watched the zaffa, viewed the bride and groom dancing awkwardly with their parents, soaked up the infectious feeling of the mass family celebration, and then proceeded to try killing them all.

Lapsing into his native Arabic for a vivid curse to describe the bomber, Fehmi said, "I bet the families last night looked a lot like his own family."

On Thursday, a hastily erected temporary wall cut off the ballroom area from the rest of the lobby, bringing a false sense of normality.

But inside the ballroom, the scale of the destruction was obvious. Piles of debris and shattered glass littered the floors, and ventilation ducts dangled crookedly from above.

And in the back of the banquet hall, flanked by two partially collapsed walls and apparently undamaged, stood the ornate, flower-wreathed chairs of the wedding throne where the bride and groom never had a chance to sit.

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