But as the crowds pressed forward to the gate, their entry point to a new life, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive belt. A second explosion followed at the nearby Baron Hotel, then gunfire.
“People were burning alive, people could not breathe,” said one Afghan eyewitness, who was with his wife and other family members waiting for an evacuation flight.
“Dead people were everywhere,” said a second Afghan man who, like other eyewitnesses, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals. “I saw a woman in blood, wrapped up in a blanket covered in blood.”
By nightfall, the full extent of the carnage came into clearer focus. At least 13 U.S. troops were dead and an additional 18 wounded, one of the deadliest assaults on U.S. soldiers in the past two decades of conflict here and the first U.S. military fatalities in Afghanistan since February 2020.
The total number of casualties remained uncertain Friday morning. One person with knowledge of the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said at least 112 people were killed and 111 injured. He said the death toll was expected to rise, because ambulance workers could not reach bodies closest to the airport gate.
The Taliban, who seized control of the country earlier this month, have promised to prove they can govern the nation and maintain security.
But within seconds on Thursday, a sewage canal that flowed by the blast walls of the international airport was transformed into a mass grave, according to a video that went viral. In one section, twisted bodies mostly of young men, lay piled atop each other, some faces frozen in agony.
In another section, bodies were partly submerged in the water. One man tried to pick up an unconscious youth, referring to him as “bacha” — child. Nearby, the wounded, their faces bloodied, were being helped up by other survivors, many of whom were sprayed with the blood and flesh of others.
Videos and photos posted on social media showed some victims being rolled away in wheelbarrows and taken to emergency wards, already thinly stretched with patients, where crowds gathered to learn of the fates of their loved ones.
“Our hospital in Kabul was already 80 percent full before the explosions. Now we added extra beds to admit wounded people coming from the airport in life-threatening conditions,” said Rosella Miccio, head of Emergency, a medical charity that helps victims of war.
In a separate statement, the organization quoted a medical coordinator at its hospital in Kabul describing the scenes he witnessed there.
“Those who arrived could not speak, many were terrified, their eyes totally lost in emptiness, their gaze blank,” the coordinator, identified as Alberto, was quoted as saying. “Rarely have we seen such a situation.”
After the explosions, hundreds of Afghans scrambled for cover. “People rushed to a blast wall, trying to climb the wall to escape from the explosion,” recalled one man. He said he and his wife found themselves in a compound commanded by British troops, who ordered them and others to sit down.
“The lights are off, we are not allowed to go outside, we cannot stand,” said the man, speaking from inside the compound, where he said about 600 people had taken shelter.
“We are still waiting to go home,” he said.
Some Afghan survivors blamed the U.S. military for bloodshed.
"I have become so fed up with everything," said one Afghan at the airport. "F--- America, why you evacuate people and then kill them?"
Hundreds of elite Afghan security forces were among the crowd gathered near the gate before the blast struck, according to a former Afghan official in contact with the group who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The soldiers, many traveling with their families, had been promised passage into the military side of the airport Thursday and evacuation flights out of Afghanistan. They were awaiting the signal to move forward when the attack occurred.
At least four of the elite troops were among the dead, according to a second former official. Others had been taken to a nearby hospital for treatment, but he said it was unclear how many.
Afghanistan’s elite security forces, who fought and trained most closely alongside Americans, fear they are at particular risk of Taliban revenge attacks, not only because of their close ties to the United States, but also because of their involvement in night raids, interrogations and detentions of Taliban fighters.
As the end date for evacuations nears, tensions around Kabul airport have spiked as thousands desperate to leave the country continue to descend on the area. Taliban leaders banned Afghans without foreign passports or green cards from entering the airport this week in an effort to prevent the evacuations from draining the country of its most skilled and educated.
But the restrictions have only fueled anxiety among those looking to flee. Afghans who have camped out for days around the airport say Taliban guards have become more violent as the crowds have grown larger.
Within hours of Thursday’s attacks, another larger explosion could be heard miles away from the airport in central Kabul, rattling windows and kicking up dust. Initial, unverified reports said the larger explosion also struck near the same airport gate, rattling the nerves of an already jittery city.
A U.S. Defense Department official later said it had been a controlled explosion done by U.S. forces. The reason was unclear, but troops will sometimes destroy equipment rather than allow it to fall into the hands of others.
Raghavan and Mehrdad reported from Doha, Qatar. Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.