A stopped truck, 3 confused minutes and a horrible blast

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A surveillance video released Sunday shows that security measures at Islamabad's Marriott hotel succeeded in stopping a suicide truck bomb at the hotel's front gate, but that security guards seemed confused about what to do next before the truck exploded, devastating the hotel and killing dozens.

About three minutes elapsed between the dump truck crashing into a retractable metal barrier at the gate and the blast. During that time, security guards can be seen approaching the burning vehicle and then retreating, then returning, one with a fire extinguisher, before disappearing from the video, which ended, presumably, when the truck exploded.

Pakistani authorities on Sunday placed the death toll at at least 53. Another 266 people were injured.

Among the dead were two American soldiers stationed at the US embassy, the Pentagon said. Their identities were being withheld until the families had been notified. Also killed were the Czech ambassador and his Vietnamese girlfriend.

"Pakistan's 9/11" the headline in The News, a local daily newspaper, captured the shock felt across the nation. The site of the Marriott, with a crater that measures 59 feet across and 24 feet deep and only a charred shell remaining of the hotel building, was dubbed the country's "ground zero".

The interior ministry chief, Rehman Malik, told a news conference that the bombing was the largest ever seen in Pakistan. He said the bomb included more than 1,300 pounds of TNT and RDX explosives and mortar shells.

The bomb also included aluminum powder that acted as a fire accelerant — indicating that the massive fire that engulfed the hotel was planned. Many of the dead were literally roasted in their hotel rooms, where temperatures reaching 750 degrees Fahrenheit overwhelmed the hotel's sprinkler system.

Malik said it was too early to pinpoint the culprits but suspicions fell on Islamic militants based in Waziristan, the wildest part of Pakistan's tribal border area with Afghanistan — where Washington believes that al Qaida and Taliban fighters enjoy sanctuary. The sophistication of the Marriott bombing suggested al Qaida's involvement, analysts said.

"All roads lead to Waziristan," said Malik. "Our enemies don't want to see democracy flourishing in the country."

The video showed that after the truck rammed the hotel gates, there was a small blast inside the truck as the bomber apparently detonated his suicide vest. The truck began to burn. A security guard can be seen running off and coming back with a fire extinguisher, which he sprayed pointlessly at a growing fire ball. The video does not show the final explosion, and it was not clear if the guards had tried to alert anyone to evacuate the hotel.

Had the truck made it past the gates, the carnage would have been multiplied many times over.

Malik called the truck a "perfect deception" as it appeared to be serving a nearby building site. He rejected foreign offers of help with the probe now underway.

"We do get information about threats, all the time, but they are sketchy," Malik said. "Our (security) agencies are fully competent and they will prove that when they investigate."

Sadruddin Hashwani, the millionaire holder of the Marriott franchise in Pakistan, vowed to reopen the hotel in four months, a target that seemed highly ambitious given the scale of the damage. He also said that guards should have shot the bomber.

"If I were there and had seen the suicide bomber, I would have killed him. Unfortunately, they didn't," Hashwani said. "But we will have better training (in future)."

Hashwani described the Marriott as the "face of Islamabad" — a description that it would be hard to argue with.

The hotel was a landmark known by all in Islamabad. Its plush restaurants and cafes were the capital's political salon, where businessmen, diplomats and foreign dignitaries stayed and where intelligence agents snooped in hopes of overhearing useful conversation.

Security was supposed to be so tight that it was one of only two places in Islamabad that Western diplomats were allowed to dine.

All of the five-story hotels 290 rooms appeared to have been gutted. A concrete skeleton, with its distinctive zig-zag roof, remained.

At least eight more bodies were removed from the upper floors by rescuers Sunday.

The ground floor shopping mall, which faces the road, was a tangle of broken beams and air-conditioning ducts. The hotel lobby and reception area was a mess of glass, bricks and bits of ceiling that were now hanging down.

In the front courtyard were the remains of dozens of fancy cars, twisted and fire-ravaged metal, which had been in the VIP parking lot.

Rescuers had been at work there for 24 hours. One, Abdul Shakoor, said he started up picking up the dead and injured from the road in front on Saturday and on Sunday was removing burnt bodies that they had found inside the hotel rooms.

The impact of the Marriott bombing was immediate. Bookings at five-star hotels in Karachi, hundreds of miles away, were reportedly down 50 percent, while the normally popular American fast-food chains, such as Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonalds, were deserted.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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