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Witnesses to devastation, and to their own luck
It was lucky for us that the suicide bombers struck first at two other hotels, and that the one who targeted our hotel was forced by security guards to fight his way into the compound.
Alerted by the two explosions minutes earlier on Monday, and then the popping of automatic gunfire immediately outside, most staffers of the Los Angeles Times bureau had taken cover in an inside corridor when the bomber detonated his vehicle outside. The blast left a 30-foot crater in the tarmac, destroyed walls and windows around us and demolished at least two houses nearby.
It happened despite the fact the area is sealed off with blast walls and is in a neighborhood with heavy security that is frequented by Iraqi politicians. Our hotel compound had hired 10 more Iraqi guards a month ago because of concerns of a threat due to three major Baghdad suicide bomb attacks since August.
The first bombing Monday, at the Sheraton Hotel, was big enough -- but sufficiently distant -- to send us scurrying to the balconies of our hotel room to look for the telltale plume of smoke that would indicate roughly where the explosion had taken place. The second blast, at the Babylon Hotel, barely half a mile away, was close enough to send us rushing inside, fearful that another bomb might be detonated in the vicinity.
Bombings in Baghdad often come in threes and, in recent months, even fours and fives. Suddenly, a cacophony of automatic gunfire erupted immediately outside, a warning that something definitely wasn't right -- though it could have just been panicked security guards firing at random, as they sometimes do.
Half a dozen or so employees of the bureau huddled in an inside corridor for what seemed like an eternity. Then, the shooting, much of it from Iraqi guards in the compound risking their lives to protect us, briefly subsided.
I noticed that Usama Redha, one of our Iraqi interpreters, wasn't with us, so I ventured into our office and found him sitting in front of the television, watching for news reports of the attacks.
At that moment, the bomb exploded. A blast of hot air washed over me. Everything, it seemed -- ceilings, windows, doors -- came crashing down
We dived -- or were blown, it's hard to tell -- toward the corridor.
Usama was crying, "I've been hit, I've been hit!" as blood oozed from his chest. We were plunged into darkness as the electricity went out, and the air was thick with dust and debris. It was a terrifying moment.
But it quickly became clear that Usama's wound was light, caused by a shard of flying glass that hadn't penetrated far beneath the surface of his skin.
After waiting to be sure there wasn't going to be yet another bomb blast, we emerged from the corridor to scenes of utter devastation -- and the realization of just how fortunate we had been.
Had the bombers struck our hotel first, we may well have been at our desks, near the windows. Or we may have been strolling through the lobby, now reduced to an improbable mountain of broken glass and crushed plaster.
Or, worse, we might have been outside, right beside the bomb -- like the 16 innocent Iraqis who happened to live in the houses next door and who perished in an attack that was surely meant for us.