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20 years later: Remembering the attack on Khobar Towers

FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (AFNS) -- Alfredo Guerrero, a staff sergeant at the time, wasn’t supposed to be on top of Bldg. 131 in the Khobar Towers complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, on the night of June 25, 1996. But as the acting flight sergeant for the military police unit, he was checking on the Airmen who were assigned to sentry posts.

Most of the Airmen in the building were assigned to the 4404th Wing (Provisional), and were in Saudi Arabia supporting Operation Southern Watch.

It was a time before the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant became a threat. In 1996, Hezbollah and Iran targeted Americans.

That night Guerrero arrived on the rooftop around 10 p.m., as he watched a large gas truck, followed by a car, make its way to the building he was on.

That same car and truck was also spotted by then-1st Lt. Michael Harner, who was inside the building beside Guerrero. Harner, who had only been on station for several days, had just returned to his room, opened a sliding glass door and stepped out onto his balcony. Before the truck made its way to Guerrero’s building, Harner noticed it parked in a parking lot next to a mosque that was under construction. Days earlier, there had been no vehicle traffic through the parking lot.

“I watched as it drove right in front of me, and the lights from the compound shone, so I could see the people in the truck, and there was actually a vehicle following the truck,” Harner said. “I thought that was very unusual to see that, and I didn’t know quite what to do about it, (because) nobody’s shooting or nobody’s doing anything.”

The truck then parked beside Guererro’s building. Two men got out and hurried into the car, which sped off. At that moment, it clicked for Guerrero that this wasn’t normal and something bad was about to happen.

“I got on the radio and called the control center to tell them what was going on, and, before I finished my first transmission, I thought about the people in the building and realized, ‘Well, if this is what I think it is, this building is going down,’” Guerrero said. “And so, before I finished my first transmission, I told them I was beginning to evacuate the building.”

The Airman with Guerrero overheard his radio transmissions and rushed into the building to begin evacuating. Guerrero got the attention of another Airman on the other side of the building and the two of them also began evacuating the eight-story building.

The explosion

Guerrero only made it down a few floors before the blast went off.

“I was fortunate enough to be behind an interior wall and so most of the overpressure from the bomb went right behind me. So, I was kind of in a protected area,” he said. “It just spun me around; it didn’t knock me down or anything.”

Not all were that lucky. The explosion killed 19 Airmen and injured more than 350 service members and civilians. It was so powerful that all of the windows in a 2-mile radius were blown out.

Sitting near the balcony door in the dorm’s common room, Harner recalled seeing a flash of light before the door was blown apart.

“I ate that sliding glass door,” Harner said, as he described how the glass shredded his face, shoulder, arm and leg.

Both towers were dark. As Harner tried to feel his way around his dorm, he made his way back into his bedroom. He remembered yelling out of the hole in the wall where his window once was, “Is there anybody out there?

“It was dead silence,” he said. “And it was probably one of the most eerie feelings I have ever had in my entire life.”

Over in Guerrero’s building, an entire side of the building had completely collapsed.

“The next thing I knew, everything was pitch black. I couldn’t hear anything or see anything,” he said.

After he collected himself and was aware of where he was, Guerrero immediately began assisting the injured. After helping an Airman down the stairs and out of the building, he headed back inside to the second floor. It was there he saw a few Airmen lying motionless under some rubble.

“Everything was kind of blurry and surreal,” he said.

Soon after, his leadership arrived. He briefed them on what he had experienced and was sent away to get checked out and cleaned up.

‘Life left his body’

Right before the explosion, then-Staff Sgt. Selena Zuhoski was watching a movie in the recreation building with fellow Airmen.

“I remembered the lights flickered, and then I heard a deep ‘boom.’ And then I remember … dust billowing in,” she said.
Zuhoski would later learn that she had been knocked unconscious.

As she regained consciousness, she and a group of people headed outside, where they saw a mushroom cloud around the site of the explosion. When they headed toward the damaged building, she said she saw people coming over the fence. Her first thought was that they were under attack.

The people hopping the fence were locals, coming to help.

After reaching the building, Zuhoski heard “there’s a guy dying on the fourth floor. He’s going into shock.” With a flashlight in hand, she and others headed upstairs.

“There was a man there in a puddle of blood and there was a door that had been blown off its hinges,” she recalled.

The group utilized the door as a makeshift gurney and carefully loaded the injured man onto it and carried him downstairs and outside, where they put him on a table until paramedics arrived.

As the group headed back into the building, Zuhoski waited with the man until more help arrived.

“I held his hand and I was covering this wound on his chest,” she said. “I was saying, you know, ‘Hold on, it’s gonna be OK.’ His hand was really cold and he was saying ‘Oh, God. Oh, God.’ And I said ‘Please. Please hold on.’ And then … I could tell the instant that the life left his body.”

Paramedics arrived and took the man away, loading him onto a bus. Zuhoksi then went back into the building to help more victims.

Post-traumatic stress

Harner, who at the time was a pavements engineer for the 4404th WG, suffered deep wounds from broken glass, along with PTSD. After being transported to a local hospital, they cleaned him up and packed him full of gauze, concerned that sewing him up with glass left inside of his body could lead to infection.

Harner, who was deployed from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, was medically evacuated the next day to Germany, where he spent two days before being sent back stateside.

He would go on to receive the Purple Heart, and for the next decade, shards of glass would continue to work their way out of his body.

Harner, now a colonel, serves as the associate director of civil engineers at the Pentagon.

Along with him and others, Zuhoski also suffered from PTSD.

“I probably didn’t even realize the impact that this would have on me as far as being like a lifelong … traumatic event,” she said. “I thought that … it would eventually fade, but it hasn’t. It’s gotten worse. I have nightmares, I have guilt. (I) wish I would have been able to do more.”

With the support of her husband, Zuhoski said she’s been able to use art as an outlet. Her husband set up a studio for her in their home about a year ago. “It’s really been therapeutic for me,” she said.

Zuhoski said talking openly to others who experienced the same tragedy has also helped.

With every tragedy, policies, procedures and ways of thinking are updated to help prevent another one.

Guerrero, now the anti-terrorism program manager at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, said one point he hits hard on when giving anti-terrorism briefings is to know the enemy.

“You have to know who you’re dealing with and how far they’re willing to go, what types of targets they’re looking for,” he said.

He said there are no front lines anymore, and it’s everybody’s responsibility to be vigilant.

“I think we’ve come a long way for protecting our folks. We’re teaching other countries how to do it,” Guerrero said. “My hope is that we’ve learned enough on where we can stop the next one, and so that’s what scares me -- the next one. What is the next one and how far are they willing to go.”