Khobar Towers 15 years later

By Lt. Col. Chuck Blank
162nd Fighter Wing, Arizona Air National Guard

Lt. Col. Blank A couple of weeks ago Airmen around the world remembered the lives lost and the lessons learned from the attack on the military housing complex June 25, 1996. Lt. Col. Blank shares his first hand experience…

It was 15 years ago, but the memory of the Khobar Towers bombing is as vivid as ever in my mind – and so are personal lessons I learned from that horrible night that claimed the lives of 19 Airmen and injured hundreds.

Volumes have been written since then outlining everything we learned from that terrorist attack. But as someone who was there, I hold two simple truths; the training we get in the Air Force truly works in a crisis, and our vigilance and pure instinct can save lives.

In 1996 I was an F-16 pilot assigned to Hill Air Force Base, Utah, and in June of that year I deployed with my squadron for my third tour to Saudi Arabia to support Operation Southern Watch. We were in Dhahran flying out of the international airport to enforce the no-fly zone over southern Iraq.

Khobar Towers was a military compound which was part of a civilian apartment complex. It was a nice compound with a clinic, a gym, a dining facility and they even built a roller-hockey rink – not a bad place to spend 90 days.

We were conducting 24-hour operations and occasionally we’d get some continuation training done. Often after dinner, if we weren’t flying nights we’d play hockey then go back to our room to watch a movie before bed. Then we’d do it all over again the next day.

It was our second week in country. On this night I was in my second floor suite with two roommates sitting in our common area when it happened. It must have been quick, but time seemed to slow down. I could feel the earth shake for half a second, the power went out and we didn’t hear anything.

Then in an instant the sliding glass door to our balcony, and everything attached to it, flew across the room in shards and landed on us.

There we were in the dark with a big hole in the wall. We didn’t know what happened and all we could hear was yelling and screaming from outside.

We started to realize it could be an attack so one of my roommates had the wherewithal to flip a table on its side for cover. My other roommate helped me pull remains of the door off my legs. We were cut up but not mortally wounded so we got out of there.

We grabbed our hockey sticks in case we had to defend ourselves and went to the hallway dimly lit by a few security lights. At that point a friend pointed out a three inch piece of glass stuck in my leg and the blood pooling by my foot.

I pulled out the glass and dressed the wound with my T-shirt. Chaos had begun to ensue and there were many people hurt worse than I was so my focus was getting them out of the building while administering self-aid buddy care.

It wasn’t until I got outside that I realized that it wasn’t our building that was directly attacked. Two buildings down the row I could see a large plume and the people running away from it.

For the first 45 minutes I remember controlled chaos. In the midst of the confusion and walking wounded, people were responding. We were triaging those seriously wounded in front of the dining facility, and our squadron was forming up in the gym accounting for our unit members. Everyone was doing exactly what they were supposed to do. This was an amazing response to witness that, to this day, gives me personal faith in our people, their discipline and the training they receive in the Air Force.

Four or five hours later, after my squadron was all accounted for and our wounds were patched, we turned on CNN in the gym to finally learn that it was a terrorist attack.

Explosives were delivered in a large fuel tanker truck. The terrorists were third country nationals that worked on the compound as contractors. They had all of the proper identification and paperwork to gain access that evening.

If they had been able to plant the truck where they wanted – right in the middle of the compound – the explosion would have killed hundreds were it not for one young troop. A security forces Airman in the first days of his first deployment followed his instincts and didn’t allow the truck onto the compound even though the driver had the necessary documentation.

Why would a fuel truck deliver fuel at 9:43 p.m.? It didn’t make sense to him. This is the second lesson I learned. There is no substitute for, or greater security measure than vigilance and instinct.

Instead, the terrorists were turned away. So they detonated the TNT-laden truck outside the compound. The damage and loss of life were tragic, but this one Airman undoubtedly saved countless lives.

Khobar Towers taught us several lessons that should be remembered every day. Those who died made the ultimate sacrifice, and we should never forget that each of us, regardless of our role in either operations or support, is responsible for the safety and security of our fellow servicemembers.

Our training, professionalism, awareness and our “gut” instincts are some of the most valuable assets in the United States Air Force.

Photo: Lt. Col. Chuck Blank, left, walks to an F-16 Fighting Falcon on the 162nd Fighter Wing flightline at Tucson International Airport with a student pilot from Poland. Colonel Blank, now a squadron commander in the Air National Guard, was one of 372 people injured in the 1996 terrorist attacks on Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Jack Braden)