Nineteen died during a night to never forget

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Steven Dietz
  • 71st Security Forces Squadron
Some dates on the calendar are ones that everyone remembers. September 11, 2001, is a prime example. Some dates are memorable for specific reasons like anniversaries or birthdays. But some dates in history are remembered for a common event encompassing a group of individuals. 

June 25 is a date the majority of the public, military and civilian, takes no special note of. Despite this, there is no denying that what happened 12 years ago on June 25, 1996, was a defining moment for the Air Force and the way it protects its people. It was a pivotal point for the Department of Defense as a whole. 

Twelve years ago a truck bomb, carrying the equivalent of 20,000 pounds of TNT, detonated to the north of building 131 at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. 

Nineteen Airmen, ranging in rank from captain to airman first class, lost their lives that night. Hundreds more sustained injuries. Some were preparing for the wing change of command scheduled the next day while others were simply trying to get some sleep. 

Three security policemen were on the roof of building 131 that night and saw the truck pull into the public parking lot which bordered the north perimeter of their building. They saw the driver park the truck, jump out and run to a nearby car which drove off. 

They were able to evacuate the top three floors before the explosion sheared off the front of the building. A fourth security policeman responding to the call had just exited his Humvee and was directing people away from the threat when the bomb detonated. The blast threw him more than 60 feet, critically injuring him and stripping him of his uniform. 

The blast brought everyone out of their buildings into parking lots. Confusion initially reigned over Khobar. The rumor of enemy "coming over the wire" added to the confusion and sent many running further from the site. 

The enemy, as it turned out, were first responders from the Saudi emergency services. A triage center was quickly set up in the mess hall to treat the numerous injuries, mostly from flying glass. Many military members, including those of the British and French detachments, who were not injured cared for those who were. 

Security policemen quickly armed whether they were in uniform or not. As the reality of what happened came to light, confusion turned to determination. This held especially true for those who ran toward the bombing, those who saw the initial carnage first hand. 

Whether they set the cordon and secured the area or recovered the victims, all was done with dignity and the military bearing needed for the task at hand. A security police staff sergeant who led a 20-man security detail to the site remembers that determination on the faces of those he led. 

Many were still in their teens or early 20s and he later said that leading that many young troops safely to the scene, with M-16s loaded, rounds chambered and adrenalin flowing at high speed was the most challenging event he would ever accomplish in his career. 

What was normally a two-minute walk took 10 minutes for the security troops. They executed team movements and a danger crossing flawlessly. Home-station training paid off. 

Once on scene, the staff sergeant put his troops on a cordon and began the long night ahead. While walking between building 131 and building 129, a four-story security police dorm, the staff sergeant looked up and was glad he did not live in that building. 

His eyes then fixed on a blown-out window. A window that led to the room where 10 hours earlier he had moved out of in preparation to leave. Walking up to the front of building 131 brought the tragedy into focus. Fifty feet from where the front of the building once stood he could look into each room on the first seven floors. 

One of his troops found a picture of a smiling young lady, lying on the ground. On the back was a simple note -- "Can't wait to see you soon, your loving wife". He never found out if that picture belonged to one of the nineteen fatalities or not. 

Twelve years later the sights, sounds and even the smells remain vivid in the minds of all of us who were there. I will never forget that night, when as a young security policeman, I was exactly where I needed to be, to do a job that needed to be done. 

(Editor's note: then Staff Sgt. Steven Dietz, assigned to the 81st Security Police Squadron at Keesler AFB, Miss., was deployed to the 4404th Expeditionary Security Police Squadron, Saudi Arabia, when Khobar Towers was attacked.)