Ammo Depot Explodes at US Base; More than 55 Injured
KUWAIT CITY (AP) _ An explosion ripped through a U.S. ammunition depot Thursday, showering soldiers with shrapnel and engulfing vehicles in flames. At least 50 U.S. troops and six British troops were injured, officials said.
″It was raining metal,″ said Spc. Mark Alexander, a 23-year-old firefighter from Norwich, Conn., who was hospitalized with smoke inhalation. ″I saw a dude with half his hand off.″
The chain-reaction blasts at the Blackhorse Camp in Doha apparently began with an electrical fire on a truck carrying 155-mm howitzer shells, military officials said. The U.S. Embassy ruled out sabotage.
The ammunition, stored on pallets in a large open-air compound, included tank rounds, artillery and bullets, officers said. The depot is near a British mess hall, which was empty during the 11 a.m. blast.
A Pentagon source said preliminary reports indicated that 14 of the military’s top-of-the-line battle tanks, M1-A1s, were damaged or destroyed. Another 35-40 military vehicles were damaged, the military said.
″We’ve lost more tanks today than we did in the whole war,″ said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
About four such tanks - each costing $2.7 million - were lost during the 43-day conflict.
The source said the explosion also claimed eight howitzers - costing $1.5 million each.
″It was blowing out shrapnel so we had to pull back and then - boom 3/8 - it went off,″ said Alexander.
″It tossed people around as they were trying to get away. That’s why you have got a lot of these guys with broken ankles, broken arms.″
The U.S. and British military and U.N. forces have bases near Doha, on a peninsula about 12 miles west of Kuwait City.
The Central Command in Tampa, Fla. said at least 50 U.S. soldiers were hurt. Their injuries ranged from minor cuts to serious shrapnel wounds.
Doctors at Al-Sabah Hospital said one U.S. soldier suffered serious brain damage after shrapnel shattered his skull. He was not expected to live. Three others underwent surgery for shrapnel wounds to their abdomens.
About two-thirds of the 3,700 troops of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment at Blackhorse were on desert maneuvers when the explosion occurred.
The Blackhorse Camp is the last major contingent of U.S. troops in Kuwait. Pentagon officials have said they hope to pull all troops out of the country by September.
Six British soldiers, from the 2nd Royal Battalion Anglian at the St. George’s Lines Camp nearby, were slightly injured and not hospitalized, said a Ministry of Defense spokesman in London.
A Defense Department spokesman in Ottawa said one Canadian soldier was slightly injured. About 300 Canadian engineers from Chilliwack, British Columbia, were at the nearby headquarters of U.N. peacekeeping forces.
The explosion rattled windows in Kuwait City and tore the roof off the British headquarters. The walls of several large warehouses used as barracks for American and British soldiers were riddled with holes.
″There was a lot of smoke and missiles going into the air. The smoke plume was about 150 feet high and the odd tracer kept firing off,″ said British Capt. Stuart Gilbert of Bulford, England.
Sgt. Rodney Lewis, 29, of Peoria, Ill., said, ″The sound was deafening and it shook all the buildings. You could see the shrapnel shooting in the air and a lot of smoke.″
Firefighters arrived within minutes but it took them four hours to contain the main blaze. Kuwaiti units helped fight the fire.
″Fortunately it took place in an isolated area on the base,″ said Col. Warren Lacy, of the Central Command’s forward headquarters in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
The U.S. soldiers at the camp are based in Germany. They arrived in mid- June to replace the Third Armored Division, the last troops that saw combat in the Persian Gulf War.