First-Person: Ames Air Force Vet Tells of Being in Terrorist Attack on Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia
In his own words, Nathan Wheat, a local chiropractor, asks readers not to forget him and hundreds of others injured in a terrorist attack on the Khobar Towers 16 years ago.
Editor's Note: As the nation gets ready to celebrate Independence Day, it is important to take time to remember the people who have made our freedoms possible.
Below is a first-person account by Nathan Wheat, an Ames man who served in the Air Force. He was stationed at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia when it was the focus of a terrorist attack.
On June 25, 1996, I was in the Air Force and stationed at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. It was my night off so I was sitting around watching “Lois and Clark” (don’t judge we only had one channel). At 9:55 p.m. there was a quick flicker of the lights and then a “BOOM,” and I was airborne.
Our base had two “sides”, the mission side and the living quarters side. Terrorists had just set off a truck bomb on the living quarters side. They pulled the truck right up to the fence, hopped in an escape car and left as quickly as they could.
Unfortunately, at the time, the Saudi government would not let us move the fence line back away from the housing units, so the bomb was only a couple hundred feet from where I was relaxing. Luckily, thanks to the commander of the security police squadron, we had people posted on the roof of the main building that was hit, the one that was directly between me and the blast. Before he arrived, the security was not nearly as tight, the commander had machine gun bunkers built, added in slalom courses to the main gate and added new posts, like the men and women on the roof of perimeter buildings. That evening’s shift commander was doing a post visit with the two men on building 131 at the time sounded the alarm and he, along with those two airmen, began evacuating the building – saving who knows how many lives.
I found myself under a pile of rubble that consisted of a couch, table, doorframe and lots of glass. There was no power, so between that and all the dust and sand that had been kicked up, going out the front of the building was not an option. I was on the first floor, so it was a short drop from the balcony but still didn’t do my busted up knee any favors. If I wasn’t sure that it hurt before the drop, I sure knew it did after I landed.
I dropped to the ground less than 300 feet from a giant mushroom cloud rising from where the truck bomb used to be. We didn’t know if it was a SCUD attack or what, but even with all the confusion, there was not the chaos you would expect. Sure, there was some panic at first, but once people got their bearings, all of our training took over. People assembled away from the bomb and started tending to the people who were most wounded. I went with a Senior Airman to look for the men posted on the roof of Building 131. The airman yelled at the building to see if they would respond. I didn’t have my glasses at the time, but what I saw next was just as frightening as the bomb itself.
Running at the base was what seemed like the entire town of Dharahn. I think the people were scared too and were trying to get to the safest place they could think of: our base. That was not the thought going through our heads at the time, and it being our night off we had no weapons. All we could do was grab some boards with nails in them and ready ourselves for this next wave of the attack. Reinforcements came before anything too serious happened; our troops and Saudi police arrived on scene so crowd control was no longer left to the two of us.
This is when we were able to start the rescue process. From Building 131 we could hear cries for help. We went in to the second or third floor, because that is the lowest level accessible due to the entire side of the building being piled up on the ground. I will not describe the things we saw here, because no one should have to experience that.
Nineteen airmen lost their lives that day and hundreds more were injured. I broke my back and my left knee, which led to my medical retirement from the military.
Now, 16 years later, the victims and survivors still await the perpetrators of this heinous crime being brought to justice. Please, remember us, don’t let these men and women be forgotten.
Nathan Wheat, DC
(S)Sgt, USAF, Retired