Scud Kills 27 GIs at Dhahran Billet
By William Claiborne
It was the first successful Iraqi missile attack on an American target in the war and caused the highest number of casualties since Iraq began launching Scuds against Saudi Arabia and Israel on Jan. 18.
As Saudi and U.S. military ambulances took away the wounded, U.S. servicemen and women stood stunned, as if unable to believe that a Scud -- an unguided ballistic missile known for its inaccuracy -- could be launched against such a sprawling city as Dhahran and hit a building housing American soldiers.
George Manes, a pool reporter who was at the scene just after the blast, said a sign on the billet said it housed the 476th Quartermaster Group, an Army Reserve transportation unit from Farrell, Pa., a city of 6,000 on the state's western border.
All of the previous Scud launches against Saudi Arabia and Israel have either hit civilian neighborhoods or have fallen harmlessly in unpopulated areas.
Mohammed Ismael, a Sri Lankan who works as a cook for an Aramco oil company subsidiary next to the Army billet, said the shock wave from the blast was so strong that it momentarily blinded him.
He said the explosion occurred two or three minutes after sirens sounded and immediately turned the building into an inferno.
Sgt. Arnel Bona, who was assigned to control the crowd at the scene, described the destroyed barracks as "gory, horrible."
The explosion occurred at 8:40 p.m. Monday (12:40 p.m. EST). Dhahran is a key allied staging area for the ground offensive against Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait, 200 miles to the north.
Witnesses said Army helicopters evacuated wounded to military hospitals.
A terse Army statement said that "it appears a Scud may have broken up in flight, scattering debris over the Dhahran area." However, residents of the area said they saw a bright trail of light from a Patriot anti-missile missile rising in the sky moments before the Scud exploded.
Nevertheless, the U.S. Central Command said no Patriot missile was launched because the Scud was breaking up.
Several miles from the scene, the distinctive sonic boom of a Patriot launching could be heard, followed almost immediately by a smaller explosion.
The sounds were similar to those heard in previous Patriot interceptions of Scuds here and in Israel.
Reporter Manes quoted weeping Army Spec. Robert Jacobs: "Why did the Patriot have to hit it? If it hadn't hit it, it would have passed by."
Debris from the explosion fell on the converted warehouse in the Khobar section of southeast Dhahran, behind a shopping center on the seafront. The blast peeled away the corrugated metal siding from the steel frame building, leaving the wrecked interior exposed.
The building, which area residents said had previously been used by a catering firm, had been rented by the U.S. Central Command for use as a temporary "base cluster" for American soldiers, an Army guard at the scene said.
An employee of a firm located adjacent to the warehouse said the missile struck as the soldiers were eating dinner. He said the building had housed mainly military policemen.
Cable News Network quoted an Iraqi Information Ministry official in Baghdad as saying the missile was aimed at Dhahran "to punish those who gave up honor and turned the Arab youth" into corpses.
Military officials at the scene refused to discuss the incident and escorted reporters out of the compound, which is protected by a sandbagged checkpoint on an access road running behind several other commercial buildings. U.S. soldiers said they had confiscated news photographers' film.
During the war, Iraq has repeatedly launched Scud missiles at Dhahran and the Saudi capital of Riyadh, killing one person before tonight's attack and injuring about 85. Most of the Scuds have been intercepted by Patriot missiles.
In Israel, two persons have been killed in Scud attacks and 230 injured.
Iraq also launched a Scud missile at the island state of Bahrain Monday night, the Associated Press reported, but it was knocked from the sky by a Patriot missile. It was the second Iraqi missile attack on Bahrain since Friday.
Earlier Monday, Iraq fired two Silkworm missiles at warships in the northern Persian Gulf. One of the Silkworms, apparently aimed at the USS Missouri, was shot down by a British escort vessel, the HMS Gloucester, and the other fell into the sea.
Correspondent Steve Coll in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1991 The Washington Post