Originally published Wednesday, December 22, 2004

MOSUL, Iraq — A powerful explosion ripped through a crowded dining facility at Forward Operating Base Marez during the noon lunch hour Tuesday, killing 22 people and wounding 66. Two of the dead and 12 of the wounded were members of the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion. A military spokesman in Baghdad said 20 Americans were killed, 15 of them soldiers, in what was the deadliest single attack against Americans here since the start of the war. Names of the casualties were being withheld pending notification of relatives.

“I got there about 30 minutes after the explosion . . . and what I saw was American soldiers doing what they do best – taking care of each other, ” a visibly moved Brig. Gen. Carter F. Ham, commander of Operation Iraqi Freedom’s northern Task Force Olympia, said in an interview at his headquarters Tuesday evening.

The Task Force has about 8,500 soldiers, nearly half from the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Lewis, Wash. About 500 are from the 133rd battalion, making up the largest contingent of Mainers deployed in Iraq.

“This is the worst day of my life, ” said Ham, who paused twice during the 30-minute interview to collect himself. “The worst day of my life.”

A short time later, Ham led a small convoy across Mosul to visit the wounded, who were crowded into the 67th Combat Support Hospital adjacent to Marez.

Master Sgt. David Scott, the hospital’s chief ward master, said the hospital took in 80 dead and wounded during the “Level 3″ mass casualty – the most severe for which hospital staff and emergency responders are trained.

“We’ve had other mass casualties, ” Scott said. “But this one was the worst we’ve seen.”

Ham said the dead included a member of the Iraqi National Guard, one civilian contractor and two employees of Kellogg Brown & Root, a private company contracted by the Pentagon to provide food and other services to the troops serving in Iraq.

The military announced early today that the blast was caused by a 122mm rocket. Earlier, military and FBI investigators were unsure whether the explosion resulted from “indirect fire” – a rocket or mortar round fired into the cavernous, canvas-covered facility – or if some type of device was detonated inside the building, Ham said.

A radical Muslim group, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, claimed responsibility in a statement posted on the Internet. It said the attack was a “martyrdom operation” that targeted a mess hall.

Ansar al-Sunnah is believed to be a fundamentalist group that wants to turn Iraq into an Islamic state like Afghanistan under the former Taliban regime. The Sunni Muslim group has claimed responsibility for beheading 12 Nepalese hostages and other recent attacks in Mosul.

BLAST FELT A QUARTER-MILE AWAY

Whatever the source, Ham said, the device was apparently packed with metal pellets the size of BBs, which sprayed in every direction upon detonation. Inside the dining facility, known among soldiers as the “DFAC, ” pockmarked walls, serving carts and other vertical surfaces bore witness to the breadth of the blast.

Eyewitnesses emerging from the building minutes after the attack said the blast struck near the center of the open dining area, where an estimated 400 American and Iraqi soldiers were eating. The concussion shook the entire base, lifting people from their seats in barracks as far as a quarter-mile away.

The attack occurred at 12:10 p.m. local time – peak lunch hour. Sgt. Mark Haas of Brunswick was filling his plate at the salad bar when he heard a “whoosh, like the air going out of a balloon, ” about 50 feet away.

“I saw the roof give way, then I saw the fireball, ” Haas said. “It knocked me right off my feet.”

Haas said he tried at first to get to where he knew fellow members of the 133rd had been seated, but was swept toward the door by a throng of evacuating soldiers. He said he then ran down the hill to the 133rd’s encampment, screaming all the way, “All available CLS’s (soldiers with combat life-support training) to the DFAC immediately!”

Up and down the 133rd’s rows of “connex” container barracks, soldiers grabbed their tactical vests and helmets and sprinted toward the dining facility, where a thick plume of white smoke rose through a gaping hole in the roof.

Within minutes, the first vehicles bearing the most gravely wounded sped with horns blaring down the base’s dusty road – some headed for the 133rd’s medical aid station, others toward the Combat Support Hospital at Camp Diamondback, across a heavily barricaded road.

Outside the dining hall, grim-faced soldiers from the 133rd and other units carried the wounded outside to a triage area near the entrance. There, medics and other CLS-trained soldiers huddled over the casualties, applying tourniquets, splinting limbs and wrapping wounds with gauze bandages.

Still other soldiers grabbed empty litters off ambulances and Humvees as they arrived on the scene, quickly loading the most seriously wounded aboard the vehicles and sending them on their way.

“This one has to go. Now!” hollered one officer, as four litter bearers rushed an unconscious soldier to a waiting Humvee.

Moments later, another litter detail hurried across the loose stones when one of the soldiers stumbled and fell to his knees, trying desperately to stabilize the litter as he went down. A nearby soldier rushed over, grabbed the handle and helped complete the evacuation.

“Stay calm!” ordered a captain watching the mishap. “Everybody stay calm!”

MASS-CASUALTY PLAN PAYS OFF

Spc. Ryan Estes of the 133rd’s Headquarters Support Company was one of the first to enter the dining hall after the blast. He emerged moments later, his face ashen, and told his fellow soldiers, “You don’t want to go in there. It’s awful.”

The triage area, while at times appearing to border on chaos, in fact closely followed a mass-casualty plan drafted months ago by Maj. John “Doc” Nelson, the 133rd’s battlefield surgeon and chief medical officer.

Maj. Dwayne Drummond, the 133rd’s executive officer, credited Nelson for his relentless insistence that units across the sprawling base be prepared for what Drummond called “the worst-case scenario we planned for . . . and dreaded.”

“If it hadn’t been for (Nelson) pushing to have litters and medical supplies up there for the potential catastrophe, there would probably have been a lot of people who wouldn’t have been treated as well as they were, ” Drummond said.

One member of the 133rd, Sgt. Christopher Rushlau of Portland, was led on foot away from the scene by two fellow soldiers. Doctors at the 67th Combat Support Hospital later determined that he’d been hit in the chest and stomach by shrapnel and needed immediate exploratory surgery.

“I’ve never had broken ribs before, but it sure feels like I do, ” Rushlau told a small group of well-wishers from the 133rd as he moved from his hospital bed to a gurney just after 8 p.m. Forcing a smile and waving farewell, he said, “I guess they want to take a look around.”

CONCRETE DINING HALL BEING BUILT

Elsewhere around the crowded hospital, doctors and nurses busily attended to two dozen patients, eight of whom were in the intensive care unit either awaiting or recovering from surgery.

Scott, the hospital’s chief ward master, praised hospital staff and other responders for working through the mass casualty – even as the fatalities mounted.

“We had body bags lined up out there – something nobody should ever have to see, ” Scott said, motioning to a hallway outside the trauma ward. “And still, these people kept working.”

Lt. Col. John Jansen, commander of the 133rd, was away on a mission an hour from Mosul when the attack occurred. He returned to the base late Tuesday afternoon and met with his senior staff to assess the losses inflicted on the 133rd.

According to Sgt. 1st Class John Keene of the 133rd’s Headquarters Support Company, two of the 12 wounded Maine soldiers were quickly evacuated by air to other military hospitals – one in Tikrit and the other in Balad. Keene said five were taken to the 67th Combat Support Hospital, and the remaining five were treated for less serious wounds at the 133rd’s medical aid station.

As the mayhem unfolded on one side of the base’s main gravel road, a new dining facility – built entirely out of concrete – stood partially completed on the other side.

Brig. Gen. Ham said he, like most senior officers, was aware of widely held concerns that the three “soft-shell” structures used to to house dining, physical fitness and recreation centers at Marez all present easy targets for insurgents who frequently lob mortars and rockets from outside the base perimeter.

Asked if reports were correct that the private contractor hired to build the new dining hall was supposed to have finished it by Thanksgiving, Ham said the target date – which clearly won’t be met – was Christmas. He cited supply disruptions, shortages of Iraqi labor and weather as some of the logistical hurdles.

“This is Iraq, ” Ham said. “This is not Pennsylvania, where you can go hire numbers of contractors and get anything done you want.”

By late Tuesday night, the base was quiet, the stillness interrupted only when an explosion from well outside the perimeter rocked the base for the second time in one day. Soldiers spilled out of their barracks and crowded into concrete shelters, most reliving the 133rd’s worst day since it arrived here last February.

Drummond, recalling the 133rd’s only other fatality – Spc. Christopher Gelineau of Portland was killed last April by a roadside bomb – said it will take time for the soldiers to work through the day’s trauma.

“People are a little jumpy tonight, ” he said.

Staff photographer Gregory Rec contributed to this report, which also includes information from The Associated Press.