A promising young U.S. Foreign Service officer, three American soldiers and a civilian government contractor who were killed Saturday in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan probably wouldn’t have been close to the blast if they hadn’t gotten lost while walking to the school where they were to participate in a book-donation ceremony, according to an Afghan television reporter who was with them and was wounded in the attack.
Ahmad Zia Abed, a reporter for Shamshad TV, said he and a videographer from his station were among about a dozen people, including the officer, Anne Smedinghoff, 25, whom American soldiers were escorting on the 200-yard walk from the local headquarters of the U.S.-led Provincial Reconstruction Team to what they thought was the school. A man at the gate said they had the wrong place, though, that this was the provincial agriculture institute.
The group retraced its steps to the American base to figure out what to do next, Abed said. The entrance to the base is just a few feet from the street, he said, and just as they reached it, walking more or less in single file, something slammed into his back and he staggered forward. Disoriented, he saw a car wheel roll past him.
"At first I thought that a car had left the road and struck me," he said. "But then I turned around and saw it had been a bomb."
Abed’s account of the bombing, the most detailed to surface since the explosion, raises new questions about the circumstances that led to the deadliest combat incident in Afghanistan for Americans this year and contradicts what relatives of the victims have said they were told – that Smedinghoff and her military escorts had been in an armored vehicle when it was rammed by a suicide vehicle. Smedinghoff was the first American diplomat to die in Afghanistan during more than 11 years of warfare here.
The FBI has opened an investigation into the attack, said a U.S. government official who declined to be identified because of that investigation. He confirmed Wednesday night that the party had been on foot, and said earlier reports that they were in a vehicle convoy were inaccurate.
Being on foot would have made the group particularly vulnerable to the effects of the explosion. Abed was interviewed Wednesday at his home in Kabul, where was recovering from surgery to remove chunks of the suicide vehicle from his left hand and the back of his right knee.
Improvised bombs sometimes aren’t strong enough to pierce an armored vehicle. Or they’re designed or built so poorly or triggered in such a way that they don’t result in serious casualties. When they explode, though, anyone on foot nearby is most at risk. That was true in this case.
Local officials said the bomber was parked outside a nearby hospital, waiting for the provincial governor to drive by on his way to the school. As the governor's convoy passed, the bomb went off. While some in the governor’s convoy were wounded, none was killed. The only Afghan to die in the blast was a doctor, also on foot, who was outside the hospital.
Abed said he was near the front of the group, closer to the U.S. base and farther from the road than most in the group were. That saved his life. Those behind him took the worst of the blast. Among them was Smedinghoff.
Smedinghoff’s father told journalists in the United States that he’d been told she was in a vehicle and the bomber either rammed it or detonated his explosives nearby. But Abed said she’d been his media escort all the way from Kabul to Qalat, the capital of Zabul province, and that he was certain she was on foot.
The immediate aftermath of the blast was chaotic, Abed said. He thinks he heard a second blast – local officials have said an attacker detonated a suicide vest – before he staggered a few more steps, still not feeling any pain.
“When I moved toward the base, everywhere was full of dust and smoke and I couldn’t see anywhere, and people were screaming and most of them injured and screaming so loudly," he said. "I just at a glance could manage to see the vehicles of the governor on the other side.
“I saw some of the people hurt around me but I didn’t see all of them, because I was so sad and shocked and couldn’t know what to do. I only saw a few yelling for help, but I couldn’t see much.”
An American soldier yelled at Abed to get down, so he dropped to the ground. Seconds later another soldier helped him find better cover behind a mound of sand. Then he and the other wounded were rapidly moved inside the base.
His videographer, who’d been closer to the bomb, took shrapnel in his legs and arms, and their camera and tripod were destroyed.
The worst wounded were put in one room, and those who weren’t critical cases, such as the two TV journalists, in another. He said he’d watched as Americans pulled white cloths over the dead, including Smedinghoff.
"I met them alive, and then I saw their bodies," he said, suddenly looking away. "I can’t forget them now, and I will never forget them."
After U.S. medics stopped the bleeding from his wounds and bandaged them, an ambulance took Abed, the videographer and another wounded Afghan to a local hospital, where a surgeon removed the shrapnel.
Later, U.S. aircraft brought him back to Kabul.
He said he was struggling with his memory. "It’s like the only thing I remember is that incident," he said. "I can’t concentrate, and I always think about the screaming of people and those who were killed around me.”
The Saturday visit to Qalat involved not just the Afghan journalists and Smedinghoff, but also several State Department officials from the embassy in Kabul as well as U.S. diplomats based in Kandahar.
Abed said he was unsure who the most senior diplomats present were, and the State Department so far has declined to say.
All the people in the group were wearing Kevlar helmets and body armor when they left the base for their failed trip to find the school. Before they walked off the base, U.S. officials from the Kandahar consulate had given a presentation on the advances that the U.S.-led coalition had helped bring to the area, Abed said. At the top of the list: much-improved security.
Zabul province, though, is hardly safe. Over the course of the war, more than 100 coalition troops have been killed there. According to statistics provided by a U.S. military representative who works there, the number of "significant activities" involving insurgents – such as attacks and bombs exploding or being discovered before they do – has increased each year since 2009.
That raises the question of why so many State Department civilians had been taken to Qalat. Ordinarily, U.S. diplomats aren’t allowed to travel much outside their diplomatic posts.
Among the most seriously wounded was another State Department officer, Kelly Hunt, 33, a former staff member of Tennessee’s Knoxville News Sentinel who was serving as a public diplomacy officer in Kandahar. An aunt told the newspaper that Hunt had been taken to the U.S. military’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany for surgery and that doctors there had medically induced a coma and removed part of her skull to help fight swelling in her brain.
Three other wounded State Department employees are being treated outside the country, according to the department, which declined to name them.
A Pentagon statement identifying the three soldiers killed by the explosion said they’d died in Kandahar, apparently an indication that they’d been evacuated by air while still alive. They were Staff Sgt. Christopher M. Ward, 24, of Oak Ridge, Tenn., Spc. Wilbel A. Robles-Santa, 25, of Junco, Puerto Rico, and Spc. Delfin M. Santos Jr., 24, of San Jose, Calif.
Like Smedinghoff, who was in her second diplomatic posting, they’d been in tough places before. Ward had joined the Army in November 2005 and was already on his third deployment. Robles-Santa, who’d joined the Army in October 2010, and Santos, who enlisted in February 2007 and was the youngest of 17 children, were on their second deployments.
The name of the civilian contractor who was killed still hasn’t been announced. Secretary of State John Kerry described him Saturday as a Defense Department civilian, but it was unclear Wednesday whether the person had worked for the Pentagon or the State Department.