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Failure in Afghan police search may have led to US deaths near Bagram Air Field

By THOMAS GIBBONS-NEFF | The Washington Post | Published: December 24, 2015

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — It was just after 1 p.m. here Monday when Marine Gunnery Sgt. Sean Fagan heard the blast and felt its shockwave shake his vehicle.

"Then we heard them come up on the radio calling for help," Fagan recalled.

An Afghan had just detonated an improvised explosive device packed with ball bearings after being allowed to ride his motorcycle into a patrol of U.S. airmen and Afghan National Police. Five were killed immediately and another would die in the following hours. Two additional airmen and an American interpreter were wounded. According to U.S. personnel familiar with the incident, Afghan national police had failed to thoroughly search the suicide bomber and his vehicle before allowing him to proceed through the patrol. The airmen were all with the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations, a military law enforcement unit.

The six deaths marked the single largest loss of American life at the hands of the enemy since NATO officially ended its combat mission in Afghanistan last year.

Fagan, 32, along with his team of four other Marines and a squad of a dozen Georgian soldiers were 400 meters away when the motorcycle and its driver exploded. As a part of a small contingent of roughly 50 Marines advising and assisting Georgian soldiers that are tasked with security for Bagram Air Field, Fagan's team had just established a temporary outpost two miles away from this sprawling base when they heard the explosion.

According to Fagan after the airmen's radio call, he grabbed Marine Staff Sgt. Michael Henderson and Navy Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Mitch Heimlich and headed to the scene.

"Hendo grabbed the litter and Doc [Heimlich] grabbed his medbag," Fagan recalled. The other two Marines, the team's driver and the vehicles turret gunner remained behind, eventually moving their armored truck to provide security at the blast site.

The sailor and two Marines sprinted towards where the explosion had gone off, now marked with lingering smoke and a dust cloud. Just behind them and separated by a small canal, were the Georgian troops who were also running towards the wounded Americans. The Marines, who had passed the airmen's patrol earlier in the day, were familiar with their Air Force counterparts were. This, according to Fagan, helped his guys get there in roughly five minutes. They would be the first on scene.

When they arrived, Henderson helped establish security around the blast site while Heimlich and a Georgian medic began triaging the wounded. When the motorcycle exploded the patrol had been in a small corridor, wedged between two walls separated by a small canal and two paths. The close confines provided by the two adjacent walls created a funnel for the explosion, increasing the lethality of the blast.

"There was nowhere for them to go," Heimlich said.

The small team went to work, choking through the lingering smoke and debris. After a quick assessment it was clear that five of the airmen were already dead. According to Heimlich, 33, and the team's de-facto medic, everyone on scene was working-including Afghan police and the three airmen who had been near the blast but remained unscathed.

"We all started working on the patients," said Fagan, who, as a reservist, is a paramedic back home in Long Beach, California. "We started stripping them down, putting on chest seals and dropping nasopharyngeals [airways]."

Those killed in the attack were: Staff Sgt. Michael A. Cinco, 28, of Mercedes, Texas; Staff Sgt. Louis M. Bonacasa, 31, of Coram, New York; Tech. Sgt. Joseph G. Lemm, 45, of the Bronx, New York; Staff Sgt. Chester J. McBride, 30, of Statesboro, Georgia; Staff Sgt. Peter W. Taub, 30, of Philadelphia; and Maj. Adrianna M. Vorderbruggen, 36, of Plymouth, Minnesota.

Heimlich, the most medically experienced responder on scene, spent the majority of his time supervising patient care and ensuring everyone was getting the right equipment.

"I couldn't stay on one, it was just too much," Heimlich said. "I had to get them on litters. . . I basically was just moving from patient to patient to patient consistently throughout the entire time."

After the initial burst of patient care and scene assessment, Fagan, a Joint Terminal Attack Control or JTAC, immediately began relaying information about the casualties to a flight of Army AH-64 Apaches overhead. The gunships had been assigned to the small Marine detachment in the minutes prior to the suicide attack and would prove invaluable in the coming hours as they provided security and helped relay the casualty information — or 'Nine-Line' — to the tactical operation center at Bagram. With the patient information transmitted, Fagan, with help from the two gunships, located a safe landing zone near the blast. The command center at Bagram then dispatched Army medical evacuation helicopters to the scene.

With the airbase just miles away, the helicopters were overhead in minutes.

The first helicopters took the wounded, while additional non-medical transport helicopters were dispatched to retrieve those who had been killed, known over the radio as the 'Heroes.'

"We moved to the landing zone with the five Heroes and the mission ready Blackhawks arrived with litters and body bags," Fagan said. "We loaded the bodies into the body bags and then those birds took off."

As the last of the dead were removed from the scene a second quick reaction force arrived followed by an Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal Team tasked with analyzing the blast site.

It was just after 2 p.m.
 

The six U.S. airmen killed by a suicide bomber near Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, on Monday, Dec. 21, 2015, are clockwise from top left: Staff Sgt. Peter W. Taub, Tech. Sgt. Joseph G. Lemm, Maj. Adrianna M. Vorderbruggen, Staff Sgt. Chester J. McBride, Staff Sgt. Michael A. Cinco and Staff Sgt. Louis M. Bonacasa.
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