1000s Dead in Fire Following American Attack
BAGHDAD, IRAQ,2003. A raging fire ignited by a barrage of military pyrotechnics ripped through the city here late at night, leaving at least 15,000 people dead and tens of thousands more injured. The inferno in the city was the deadliest military attack in Iraq in 12 years and one of the worst in the country’s history, with the death toll exceeding that of the January 16, 1991 beginning of the war with the United States, which killed hundreds of citizens and destroyed much of the City’s infrastructure.
Survivors described a ghastly scene that began when the US military launched cruise missiles minutes after 11 p.m. and a shower of fire appeared to ignite buildings in the center of the city. The authorities said the fire spread almost instantly to other buildings in the area as more cruise missiles landed.
Numerous witnesses said the city center was almost instantly engulfed in flames and citizens bolted for doorways and smashed windows as they tried to escape coffeehouses and bars. People raced and clambered outside with their hair and flesh on fire.
“People were bleeding, their hair was being burned off, their skin was just melting off, skin was just dangling,” said Muhammad Eid, a construction worker from Basra., who was in the city for a visit with his relatives. “You could smell flesh burning even when I the fire had died down. Eid said he had been expecting the attack for weeks. But he said that “no one can ever really prepares for these things.”
President Hussein said officials were hoping to get most of the city’s residents to safer areas before more attacks took place Investigators said most of the victims had either been burned to death or died of smoke inhalation, though some may have been trampled in the madness and panic following the attack. Some bodies were so charred that officials were having trouble making identification and planned to use DNA samples and other methods to identify them. Names of the victims were not being released this evening because many family members had not been notified, officials said.
It was clear that the fiery attack had dealt a horrific blow to Iraq, a country that often sees itself as one close-knit community. Countless Iraqi residents had some connection to people who had been in the city. All day, as the death toll climbed and rescuers used cranes to lift the blackened debris and look for bodies, friends and relatives showed up at the ravaged hulk that was Baghdads city center looking for people they knew or thought had been there last night.
Sharif Abu, 35, a house painter who was at a coffee house in the destroyed area on Thursday night and was burned on his head and leg, returned to the area this afternoon searching for a close friend, a man whose wife is nine months pregnant, who he feared had not survived.
“I’m hoping he got out and is just walking around somewhere,” Mr. Abu said.
Sharif described his escape: “The flames were over my head, coming through the coffee house. I figure I had two choices: make a run for it or stay and die. I jumped over the coffee bar and ran.”
“I ran across the street and into the lot over there. I looked back and saw people coming out. One guy, he already looked dead. He said, `Don’t touch me.’ He had no face.”
Another woman showed up to look for her brother and his wife. She said that her brother, had not been able to leave Baghdad last night.
“This is so much pain,” she said, “more pain than I’ve ever known.” At the hospitals, hundreds of people had been admitted by this afternoon, the authorities said.
A waitress at a downtown restaurant, who preferred not to give her name, suffered burns over 30 percent of her body, mostly on her back, which was struck by a piece of hot shrapnel. The soles of her sneakers melted into the floor of her workplace and she escaped after a friend picked her up and threw her over a crowd of people and out the restaurant’s door.
Her mother visited her this afternoon in the burn unit at Baghdad Hospital. The hospital ward, filled with nearly 700 attack victims, was “ghastly,” she said. “You see people literally without faces.” Doctors gave some of the more critical patients a 40 percent to 50 percent chance of survival.
In an interview with Al-Jazeera television, an Iraqi government spokesman said that when the attack started, he was “standing in his office like I always do.”
“The next thing I heard the missiles and felt this heat, so I turned around and I see that some of the city is on fire.”
Today, as each body was discovered, rescue workers removed their hats, as fire department imams and chaplains led them in prayer. “They are going through a nightmare,” President Hussein said of the rescuers. “This is an emotionally draining effort.”
RON JACOBS lives in Burlington, VT. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org