Edward V. Sanchez, a truck driver for Halliburton, had just passed under a bridge near Baghdad on April 9, 2004, when another truck in his convoy hit a mine and "all hell broke loose."
"We began taking rounds of small arms fire from both sides," Sanchez said at a Capitol Hill hearing yesterday. "The shots were coming like a hail storm."
By day's end, seven civilians from the fuel convoy were dead and seven more were injured. Surviving convoy members and the families of the dead now claim the incident could have been prevented. Halliburton, they argue in a suit filed in federal court, had ample warning the route was unsafe to travel because of reports of a running battle between insurgents and the U.S. Army.
That allegation was at the center of a Democratic Policy Committee hearing that renewed attention on Halliburton Co., which has come under intense scrutiny as the largest U.S. contractor in Iraq.
Past criticism has focused on accusations that the firm, once run by Vice President Cheney, is squandering taxpayer money. Testimony by two former Halliburton truck drivers yesterday raised the question of whether the company was protecting its workers. The firm's KBR subsidiary has lost 91 employees and subcontractors to violence in Iraq since the war began in March 2003.
In response to the lawsuit, the company has said decisions about convoy activity are out of its hands. "The U.S. military has command and control of all KBR convoys in Iraq . . . and is required to provide security for KBR's employees through the company's contract with the Army," the company said in a statement.
Halliburton has sought to have the suit thrown out, arguing the company is immune from litigation related to its work in Iraq for the U.S. government.
The drivers did sign liability waivers before heading to Iraq. But T. Scott Allen Jr., the attorney representing the drivers and their families, said yesterday that Halliburton should have to answer for sending the convoy despite knowing the roads were the scene of "active combat, that the areas were closed and off limits to civilian personnel."
Sean A. Larvenz, a former Halliburton driver who was traveling in another convoy on the day of the attacks, said he had to turn his truck around that morning because he saw insurgents firing at vehicles ahead of his. He said he notified his bosses at Halliburton. Sanchez's convoy was sent later that day.
Larvenz said he believed financial motivations had guided the firm's decision. "As long as the trucks rolled," he told senators, "they got paid."
Also testifying was Julie McBride, a former Halliburton employee who alleged the company inflated its profit by overstating the number of soldiers using Halliburton recreation facilities. Halliburton has a multibillion-dollar contract to provide the Army with logistics support, including gyms and computer clusters. McBride, who helped run those facilities at an Army base in Fallujah, said the firm lied about the number of soldiers who used them because it got reimbursed for its costs and then received a percentage for profit.
"Under its contract, the more facilities, equipment, staff and administrators Halliburton can show a need for, the more profit Halliburton makes," she said. "As the mantra at Halliburton camps goes, 'It's cost-plus, baby.' "
In a statement, Halliburton denied McBride's allegations and said they "clearly demonstrate a complete misinterpretation of facts."
The Army said this summer that it would not renew Halliburton's contract for another year, and instead would divide it up among three firms following a new bidding competition.
The hearing yesterday was the latest in a series held by Democrats who say they feel Republicans have failed to aggressively oversee spending on the war.
"There's something dreadfully wrong with the way that money has been spent and the lack of accountability," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), who chaired the hearing.