Flaming debris from an Iraqi Scud missile slammed into a makeshift barracks full of U.S. troops near here Monday night, killing at least 27 soldiers and injuring 98 in a fierce explosion and fire, according to the U.S. military Central Command in Riyadh.
Eyewitnesses said a Patriot missile had intercepted the Scud overhead, but U.S. military officials in Riyadh said they could not confirm that a Patriot had been launched.
"Why did the Patriot have to hit it?" asked a dazed and weeping Specialist Robert Jacobs of Iowa, standing outside the twisted, flaming wreckage. "If it hadn't hit it, it would have passed on by."
This was the deadliest Scud attack of the war. The soldiers were the first Americans to be killed from the Scuds that Iraq has launched against Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Baghdad Radio hailed the attack, saying the missile struck "the coward traitors who mortgage the sacred places of the nation . . . and turn Arab youth into shields of flesh."
As air raid sirens wailed across Dhahran about 8:30 p.m., the incoming missile could be seen descending in a fiery arc against the cold desert night. It crashed in a roar of flame directly into the hangar-like, three-story former warehouse in Khobar city, just outside Dhahran.
"It came very slowly, then it fell and exploded, very loud," said Mohad Raies, a 34-year-old Indian construction worker who watched in fear through his gas mask as the missile landed 100 yards away. "It was a tremendous explosion. And then the fire. It is horrible."
Greg Seigle, a 25-year-old American free-lance journalist who arrived at the scene moments after the blast, said rescue helicopters and ambulances didn't arrive for 20 minutes to begin pulling the dead and wounded from the flames, bent steel girders and shredded tin walls and roofing.
"There was a huge fireball in the air, and huge pieces of flaming debris came raining down, like a Roman candle," he said. "The explosion shook the ground. Then there was a second, smaller explosion."
The deadly rain of fiery shrapnel caused several cars to collide on a nearby six-lane highway, and the air filled with the stench of sulfur, Seigle said. "The building itself was an inferno," he said. "All you could see was the skeleton frame, completely engulfed in flames."
Military sources said the warehouse, hidden behind a shopping center and about three miles from the Dhahran airport, contained a mess hall and barracks for at least 100 men and women. A singed sign at the entrance marked it as the home of the 475th Quartermaster Group, a reserve water supply unit from Farrell, Pa. Scores of trucks parked nearby were not hit.
No trace of chemical gas was found after the explosion.
TV footage shot moments after the crash showed bodies covered in plastic being hauled out of the building, on stretchers. Blood poured down one man's face.
Witnesses said a flatbed truck hauled several bodies away, while a charred yellow school bus, all its windows broken, carried dazed and bleeding survivors to the hospital. Several injured people, witnesses said, wore T-shirts or jogging suits, not military garb.
A military chaplain moved quietly among the survivors shortly after the blast, consoling them. Some embraced each other in anguish. Many were in tears.
The wounded were rushed to the 85th Evacuation Hospital and the Air Transportable Clinic in Dhahran.
The front of the building collapsed and the explosion blew out most of the flimsy tin walls and roof. An hour later, rescuers working under huge lights picked through the smoldering rubble, and a stream of ambulances and heavy cranes continued to rush to the site.
Inside, huge girders and twisted corrugated tin panels lay jumbled with torn clothes, brown duffel bags and canvas cots. Windows in nearby workers' quarters and cars were shattered by the blast.
"All my windows were broken," said Mario Diaz, 24, a Filipino worker. "I am in shock."
In Farrell, on Pennsylvania's western border, telephone lines late Monday night rang with calls, carrying a great deal of worry but little hard information. Family support groups were gathering at the Army Reserve Center in town, waiting for what fragments of news they could get about what had happened to the men and women of the 475th.
Specialist Ronald Powell II, 22, got to a phone Monday after the Scud hit and told his parents in West Middlesex, near Farrell, that he was fine. "He is a little nervous" about his comrades' fate and didn't know what had become of them, said his father, Ronald Powell. Many of his friends were at work with him, far from the building, when the Scud landed, he told his parents.
Specialist Powell was a Penn State senior majoring in elementary education when he was called on Sept. 10 to join his reserve unit. "It was really no major surprise, we kind of expected it," he told the local newspaper at the time. "But I wish I could have finished (my studies) on time. But I plan on coming back and finishing up."
The reserve center in Farrell, population 6,000, dispatched more than 500 reservists to the Gulf from the area, from towns like Farrell, Sharon and even "a stone's throw" across the state line to Youngstown, Ohio, said Army Reserve spokesman Lt. Col. Paul Rots, who added, "We know this is the area hit the hardest by all the activation."
From the last day of September, when the 80 or so reservists in Farrell's own 475th Quartermaster Group headquarters left for two weeks of training in Ft. Lee, Va., before flying off to Saudi Arabia, the town has been proud and prayerful. Every school board meeting and City Council meeting has opened with a moment of silence for the troops. The streets have been festooned with yellow ribbons and flags.
The prospect that some reservists from this working-class town might now not be coming home would be devastating to Farrell, the first community in Pennsylvania to be declared a financially distressed community, residents said. (Its steel mill, the major employer, went into bankruptcy and has just recently pulled itself out.)
In Saudi Arabia, the Central Command statement said the Scud "may have broken up in flight and scattered debris over the Dhahran area."
Air raid sirens blared again at 1:30 this morning, but officials said a Patriot missile intercepted the Scud as it headed toward the nearby island nation of Bahrain.
Iraqi Scuds previously have killed one person and injured 85 in Saudi Arabia. In Israel, two have died and more than 230 have been injured in Scud attacks.
Drogin reported from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and Morrison reported from Los Angeles.