U.S. troops see devastating aftermath of Iraq blast
January 2, 2004
BAGHDAD, Iraq — The troops in their Humvees first saw the big light from across town, then the deep boom.
And what Spc. Seneca “Doc” Ratledge was about to see is something he doesn’t expect to forget soon.
“Initially, we saw a flash from the bridge we were at and after that — a couple of seconds — we heard the boom, so, suspected it was a car bomb,” said Ratledge, 24, of Riceville, Tenn., 2nd Platoon medic with the 1st Armored Division’s Company B, 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment.
The squad’s Humvees wound through Baghdad’s streets toward the towering column of smoke.
They pulled up outside the broken walls of the Nabil restaurant amid a frantic scene of flames, broken glass, bleeding victims and shouting Iraqi police. Cars burned in a row outside the restaurant, in the city’s upscale Karrada section.
“We really felt like something was going to happen. And sure enough …” said the squad leader, Sgt. Michael Callan, 31, of Dumfries, Va.
What Ratledge would see over the next few hours appalled him. But he knew he’d need to keep calm, stay focused, and let his training take over.
Sections of wall and ceiling had caved in. A steel beam hung exposed. Dining tables and chairs lay upturned. A wall clock hung aslant, its hands motionless at 9:18.
“We started digging,” said Ratledge.
One of the victims was just inside the break in the wall on the blast side of the building. It was an Iraqi woman in a Muslim head scarf, buried chest high in rubble.
A few feet over, a man sat slumped and lifeless like a broken department store mannequin, a gash across the top of his head.
“He was gone,” Ratledge said.
“I checked her,” he said of the Iraqi woman. “She had a pulse.”
Troops and Iraqi rescue workers started pulling away chunks of masonry and other debris.
“I kept my head together,” said Ratledge. “Let them know she was still alive – so they could keep digging.
“But you take into consideration that the rubble is on top of her and that’s what’s keeping her alive,” said Ratledge. “They take the rest of it off her and that’s when her pulse started weakening.”
The woman died, but the rescuers in that corner of the restaurant kept digging, looking for victims.
Meanwhile, outside, firetrucks, ambulances and other emergency vehicles continued arriving, sirens going, lights flashing. Iraqi police, some calm but others keyed up, worked to push back crowds of onlookers and reporters who had converged on the scene.
The blast killed eight Iraqis and injured 35 other people, some of them Westerners. No U.S. troops were injured.
For Ratledge, the New Year’s Eve bombing was the fifth time since he’s been in Iraq that he’s dealt with the dead. But this was different.
“You don’t see stuff like this happening every day. …” he said. “This is reality, reality right here. It’s different when a building blows up and nobody’s in it. But this is a restaurant. People eating. It gets to you,” he said.
“I see they were celebrating,” said Ratledge. “And to see that man and maybe his sister and his wife. … As soon as you see it, it’s kind of hard. … Mentally, I know that when I go back home to the building [the base], it’s going to be on my mind. It’s gonna be there.”
For Callan, the squad leader, the bombing was just the latest instance of how the guerrilla insurgency has brought danger and uncertainty to the people of Baghdad, and the troops who have the job of patrolling the city.
“You just never know what you’re going to get from day to day,” said Callan. “If it wasn’t for so much rubble, I think we could have got that lady out. … It’s kind of a sad sight, the whole situation. … Just a damn shame.”