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The Grim Reaper, Riding a Firetruck in Iraq

Moments later, Lance Cpl. Diego Naranja, 22, of the New York City borough of Queens, radioed from a guard tower just north of Post 8 that he had spotted a white dump truck moving north on a one-lane road the U.S. military calls West End. "But as soon as he called it in, it was like, Blam!" Lampe said. "That's when we got hit by another blast. That one knocked us to the ground."

Fink said he was convinced that the insurgents concentrated fire on Post 8 as a diversion. "There's no doubt in my mind," he said. "They knew that was the closest post to them. If they could keep us down, then they could pull the [explosives-laden vehicles] out onto the road." Naranja said he managed to shoot several rounds at the dump truck but it soon disappeared.


A Marine inspects rubble caused by suicide bombings last week that were part of a coordinated insurgent attack on a Marine base in western Iraq. (Steve Fainaru -- The Washington Post)

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The dump truck reached a fork, then turned west. It traveled beneath four concrete arches and sped toward the base, located next to the border crossing. The U.S. military closed the border for security reasons before the January elections and has not reopened it. The area is now a ghost town of abandoned customs and insurance houses and a 30-foot concrete mural painted with the Iraqi flag.

The dump truck headed directly toward Butler, who was standing guard under camouflage netting in Tower 2. Butler opened fire, and the truck veered left, ramming a cluster of trucks the Marines had wired together to block access to the base entrance. The dump truck then exploded, sending Butler flying into the tower's ledge as concrete debris rained on him.

Camp Gannon was now under full-scale attack. Mortars and rockets pelted the base from the south and east as most of the Marines, still in bed, scrambled toward the safety of bunkers.

About 45 seconds after the dump truck exploded, its purpose became clear: It was to serve as a battering ram to clear the base entrance for the fire engine.

The firetruck had become something of a phantom for India Company. The Marines had heard that insurgents might use one as a suicide bomb. For two months, they had been warned by commanders to be on the lookout for a firetruck, but it had never been seen and some Marines had concluded it wasn't real.

Now, the fire engine was roaring north along the West End. "When I seen it, my heart stopped," said Lance Cpl. Sebastian Lankiewicz, 20, also of Queens. "It was like I was looking at the Grim Reaper himself coming down freakin' West End."

The fire engine followed the same route the dump truck had taken, turning left at the fork, going beneath the arches and roaring toward the entrance to the base. Butler, who had staggered to his feet, could hear it before he could see it, the whining diesel engine getting louder behind a cloud of smoke.

"It was like a movie," he said. "It reminded me of 'Lethal Weapon.' The smoke was all there and then he just rolled through it, just like in the movie." Smoke "just rolled off the windows. I couldn't believe what was happening."

Suddenly it was upon him, and Butler could see inside the vehicle. "It had two individuals in it," he said. "They were dressed in all black, and their faces were veiled and covered. I could see the slits of their eyes."

Butler fired approximately 100 rounds at the firetruck. Like the dump truck, it turned left just before reaching the entrance. Butler said he thought the driver was either distracted by the withering fire or was unable to locate the entrance.

The sound of the explosion was "really unexplainable, just the noise and the violence about it," said Diorio, the company commander. Although the fire engine had failed to penetrate the entrance, "they were basically inside our perimeter," he said. The blast was so loud, Diorio feared the worst.

Slowly the reports began to filter in over the platoon network.


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