MOBILE, Ala. — The truckers came from ordinary American towns like this one. They were hauling jet fuel across one of the most dangerous roads in Iraq on a day when the insurgency was exploding. The trucks had no armor. The men had no weapons. Their military escorts didn't even know the route.
As they neared the end of their run, the 26-vehicle convoy trundled into a valley of fire. Insurgents on both sides of the road opened up. Bullets shredded cabs. Rocket-propelled grenades flipped tankers like toys. Thick black smoke blotted out the road.
Trapped, lost, their trucks afire and losing speed, the men desperately pushed on. For five miles, they maneuvered through flames, blood and fear. Some were cut down as they fled crippled vehicles. Others cried for help as they burned. One man, bleeding to death in the arms of a companion, called out his children's names.
The April 9, 2004, mission is best-known for the kidnapping and dramatic escape of its leader, Mississippi dairy farmer Thomas Hamill, whose safe return weeks later was cause for celebration.
But others weren't so lucky. Six truck drivers for Halliburton Co. were killed that day, and nine were injured. One trucker remains missing. Two U.S. soldiers escorting the convoy were killed, and one is missing. Of 43 men on the convoy, 25 were killed or injured.
It remains the deadliest incident involving American contractors in the war in Iraq.
Interviews with surviving drivers and families of the dead, and a U.S. Army report obtained by the Los Angeles Times, show that the U.S. military and Halliburton missed numerous warnings in sending the men on the ill-fated mission.
From the moment it left the gate, the convoy may have been doomed by a series of errors that escalated into disaster.
The documents and interviews show:
• Military bungling and poor communications sent the men onto an active battlefield on a road that was supposed to be closed. A U.S. soldier who approved the route changed his mind minutes later and sent an e-mail advising that the road was closed. He accidentally sent the e-mail to himself, and it never reached the convoy.
• Halliburton agreed to drive the route despite warnings from its own personnel. Another Halliburton convoy traveling the route was hit earlier the same day, losing several vehicles. The leader of that convoy told colleagues that he had e-mailed his superiors about the danger.
• Neither the truckers nor their escorts had prepared for the mission. The destination was changed 15 minutes before the convoy headed out. None of them were familiar with the exact route.
• The military did not follow its own recommendations. An order issued on the morning of the convoy's departure recommended a minimum ratio of one Army soldier to accompany every two Halliburton trucks. The April 9 convoy had six soldiers among 19 trucks.
• Halliburton let its men drive unarmored military vehicles rather than their customary white civilian trucks, making the truckers appear as a military target.
The toll would have been worse if not for the actions of some U.S. soldiers and truckers, survivors said. Contractors and soldiers alike returned fire, and one soldier was awarded the Silver Star for bravery.
Details of the incident raise questions about the nation's expectations of private contractors in war zones — expectations that have reached unprecedented heights in Iraq. They also raise questions about the obligations of their employers.
The U.S. military did not have the capability to move crucial fuel on its own. Military officials put pressure on Halliburton to deliver, fearing shortages as the insurgency gathered steam in southern and central Iraq. An unidentified U.S. commander told his subordinates that Halliburton had to deliver that day.
"Not moving critical support is not an option," he wrote in an e-mail. He ordered additional security measures to mitigate the risk.
In the U.S., the truckers hauled trash and built houses and operated bulldozers. They were not soldiers. But U.S. military commanders ordered them into a battle zone, and Halliburton let them go.
Nearly a year later, nobody has been held publicly accountable for the reported blunders of that Friday. Neither Halliburton nor the U.S. military has announced disciplinary measures.
Col. Gary Bunch, the commander of the 172nd Corps Support Group, whose men escorted the convoy, did not respond to requests for comment. Capt. Jeff Smith, commander of the escort unit, said his men were acting on orders from higher-ups.
"We executed what we were supposed to do," Smith said.
A Halliburton spokeswoman declined to answer specific questions on the April 9 incident. In an e-mail, Beverly Scippa said that the company had launched a program to provide more protection for its trucks and drivers.
"Lives depend on our work, as does the military's ability to carry out its missions," Scippa said. "Employees and subcontractors working in Iraq understand the dangers and difficult conditions involved in working in a war zone and have made courageous decisions to deliver the services necessary to support the troops."
Truck driver Hamill, who still works for Halliburton, said he didn't believe the military could have done anything differently: "They lead, we follow," he said.
The families say their loved ones died in the service of their country. They wonder about the repercussions if a general sent soldiers without training, weapons, armor or adequate communications into a battle zone.
The family of driver Tony D. Johnson, 47, of Riverside, plans to file a lawsuit in state court Monday accusing Halliburton of negligence in his death. It is the first of several lawsuits expected in connection with the case.
Marjorie Bell Smith is the mother of Tim Bell, the Halliburton driver who is missing and presumed dead. Outside a modest brick home in a Mobile suburb one recent spring day, the azalea and dogwood were bursting into bloom. Inside, the family grieved. "We don't want medals," said Smith, 68. "We want the truth."
The morning of April 9, Halliburton driver Steve Fisher called home from a sprawling, dusty airbase near Balad in northern Iraq.
He told his wife, Ingrid, in Virginia Beach, Va., that he was worried. It was a religious holiday in Iraq. The Marines were invading Fallouja. The Mahdi Army, the militia of rebel cleric Muqtada Sadr, had just risen in revolt in Najaf.
"I don't want to go out," he told her. "But I have to."
"That was the last time I spoke to him," recalled Ingrid, 39, who is now struggling to raise three children on her salary as director of a day-care center.
The base near Balad, also known as Camp Anaconda, is the primary distribution hub for the U.S. military in Iraq. The military controls the base, but relies on Halliburton to supply housing and deliver food and other essentials. The Houston company also delivers fuel in Iraq, including jet fuel for U.S. aircraft.
The night before, Halliburton had gathered with the military to plan a mission north to a military base. But the next morning, as the men waited to depart, a Humvee pulled up with new orders: The men were to go to the northern gate of Baghdad's international airport, 40 miles to the south. The airport was in urgent need of fuel, an official later said.
It is unclear who ordered the change. But at 9:54 a.m., an unidentified soldier relayed orders from the headquarters of the 13th Corps Support Command to send the convoy toward the airport's rarely used north gate.
Three minutes later, the same soldier sent a second e-mail to the command of the convoy's military escort: "Sorry, it looks like [the route to the north gate] is closed until further notice."
But by mistake, he sent the e-mail to himself, according to the Army report.
Out in the dusty staging area, the military hurriedly found a soldier from another unit who had been on the route before. With no maps, the single soldier who knew the route sketched it in the dirt for everyone to follow.
The convoy loaded up and headed south — directly toward intense fighting then underway between the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division and 200 to 300 well-armed members of the Mahdi Army.
The sergeant selected to guide the convoy later called it criminal that supervisors failed to relay intelligence on the road's dangers.
The convoy started out routinely, moving down the main highway outside Balad to Baghdad on a sunny day. There were 26 vehicles — 19 Halliburton trucks carrying 125,000 gallons of jet fuel interspersed with seven armored military vehicles.
The soldiers from the 724th Transportation Company, based in Bartonville, Ill., were reservists who had recently arrived in Iraq. Their Humvees and 5-ton gun trucks carried grenade launchers and heavy machine guns.
Normally, Halliburton uses white trucks to emphasize their civilian status to potential enemies. But Halliburton was short on trucks, and the military had deeded over some of its unarmored vehicles to the company. So on April 9, the convoy that rolled out of Balad appeared to be a long green line of camouflaged military vehicles.
Just after 12:30 p.m., about five miles from the airport, the convoy began taking fire. Bullets tore into the fuel tankers. Fuel sprayed everywhere, coating the road and the trucks. RPGs flew in. Mortar shells roared overhead.
The soldiers later told investigators it was unlike anything they had seen before.
"Hell broke loose," one soldier said.
The Halliburton and military drivers at the front of the convoy were hit. The lieutenant in command, Matt Brown, was shot in the face and slumped over in his seat. Hamill's truck and a second truck were struck by gunfire and had to pull over.
As a Humvee drove past, Hamill and his driver abandoned their trucks and ran toward it. The driver, Nelson Howell, 44, of Huntsville, Ala., made it. Hamill did not. He was seized by insurgents.
The rest of the convoy got bogged down in gunfire and flames. As the jet fuel spilled out, the roads became as slippery as ice. Some trucks jackknifed and flipped, catching fire. The trucks struggled to negotiate a hairpin turn on an exit ramp leading to the airport.
Damaged trucks began to lose power and slowed to less than 10 mph as drivers frantically mashed gas pedals. Insurgent roadblocks and the burning tankers made maneuvering difficult. Speed, the truckers' only defense, was gone.
As the stricken convoy limped ahead, truck-to-truck communications were sporadic. Even when the radios worked, soldiers and truckers couldn't hear over the gunfire. Those who could hear described a horrible soundtrack of pleas from burned and wounded truckers and soldiers. The truck cabs — without any armor — were being sliced to pieces.
"Oh God, please don't let me die in Iraq," yelled one trucker, a Vietnam vet.
Eddie Sanchez, 36, a fellow driver, said: "Then he yelped like bullets were hitting him. Then he stopped. It was kind of a relief."
The first few fuel tankers struggled ahead. But those in the middle of the convoy were destroyed by bullets and rocket-propelled grenades. That is where five of the six confirmed dead Halliburton drivers and one of the U.S. soldiers were killed, according to interviews and the Army report.
Those bringing up the rear were greeted with a hellish scene of fire, flying bullets and dying men. But there were no options. The highway, with steep walls and homes on one side and a median on the other, had become a gantlet of death.
Enemy fighters darted out of bushes and from roadside berms, and popped out of houses. Some took cover behind women veiled in black. Children fired AK47s.
"It was just like something you would see in the movies," one soldier, Jarob Walsh, wrote later in his report for investigators. He recounted with regret shooting a boy about 7 years old in the throat after the youngster and his brother opened fire on him.
"We kept going, and came upon five or six … tanker trucks that had been blown up and were on fire; there was black smoke everywhere," he said. "We drove right through it, praying that we would not hit any debris in the fire; we couldn't see anything. It was extremely hot in the fire and there was so much black smoke everywhere that I couldn't breathe.
"It was phenomenal — there is no way to exaggerate what was happening and what it looked like," Walsh continued. "The most horrible thing you could imagine is what it looked like. Bodies everywhere, trucks on fire and exploding, so much weapons fire."
A handful of soldiers and drivers who survived the onslaught huddled near the ruins of their crippled vehicles and prayed for rescue. The intensity of the fright fills them to this day. As trucker Jackie Lester thinks back, he seems transformed.
"I was scared. I was like this: uhhh," the Louisianan said, keening and clenching his fists. "The fear was set in. We were all scared. I was scared to death. All I saw was burning. I said, 'I'll try to find the end of the rainbow.' I was in the kill zone."
Lester and Fisher brought up the rear in two bobtails, trucks without trailers designated to pick up stragglers. Desperately searching for the voices they heard calling out over the radio, Fisher managed to pick up one soldier and a driver before receiving a fatal wound.
Lester rescued another driver. But he is still haunted by one voice, screaming at him to come back. Lester had no idea where the man was or how to get to him, he said.
"I could hear him saying, 'Jack, you bastard, come back!,' " said Lester. "I couldn't handle that. I didn't want to answer. I didn't want to tell him, 'I can't help you.' "
A Humvee wound through the smoking ruins of the convoy, taking fire at every step, rescuing seven soldiers and drivers. The men worked as a team. Soldiers bandaged wounds; so did Halliburton drivers. Soldiers fired at insurgents; so did Halliburton workers.
"Everybody was working together. The panic went by us," said Ray Stannard, a trucker from New Mexico.
Within sight of the airport gate, the Humvee suddenly broke down. The 10 men packed inside were stranded, taking fire, running out of ammo. Some were wounded and at least one soldier, Pfc. Gregory Goodrich, 37, was killed.
Just as desperation set in, the men heard a screeching noise. Off in the distance, the men saw three tanks and two armored Humvees rolling in their direction. The 1st Cavalry had arrived.
"It was like an old John Ford-John Wayne cavalry movie," one of the soldiers would later write.
The 1st Cavalry soldiers managed to collect the survivors at the edge of the airport. There, they took stock of the dead and wounded.
It was a grim tally. The 25 casualties among 43 men in the convoy was a high casualty rate even for a hardened infantry unit. Two men, driver Bell and Spc. Keith "Matt" Maupin, remain missing and are presumed dead.
The Army awarded eight Purple Hearts to its soldiers. Spc. Jeremy Church, of the 724th Transportation Company, was awarded the Silver Star for driving through fire to safety, and then returning with the 1st Cavalry soldiers to rescue comrades.
Surviving Halliburton employees got gold coins inscribed with a motto: "We deliver."
"They did deliver, didn't they?" Sanchez, a driver, asked with bitterness in his voice. "Even though they knew it was a red zone" too dangerous to drive through.
Earlier this year, the Army began visiting the families of the dead and missing truckers. It was their first official explanation of what occurred April 9.
For many, it provided little comfort.
Bunch, commander of the 172nd, said the Army was taking the unusual step of opening its files because of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the ambush.
We "had not been attacked like this before. It was a wholly singular event and it was a watershed in Iraq," he said, according to a tape recording of one of the meetings obtained by The Times. "Were they in the right place doing the right thing? The answer is yes."
Bunch told the families that the convoy took the route leading to the airport's north gate because of intelligence reports that an ambush was planned along another route.
But he did not explain why that same intelligence failed to reveal the insurgents massed along the north airport road; why neither the military nor Halliburton was able to communicate the dangers of the route to Balad; or why the convoy was not given air support like another nearby convoy had received that same day.
Bunch's 280-page report, while heavily censored to protect identities and military tactics, is blunt on the failures to communicate:
"The information that was not forwarded had a direct influence into the outcome of this convoy," the report said. "If the information was properly sent to subordinate units, actions could have been taken to potentially minimize impact of hostile engagement."
The families say that a lawsuit may help to relieve financial burdens that they now face. While private truckers in Iraq can make $100,000 a year, several of those killed in the convoy had worked there only a few months. Most families received a $50,000 life insurance payment.
"We were high school sweethearts. We wanted to retire to a cabin in the woods and to go fishing. That's it. That was denied because of others' mistakes," said Hollie A. Hulett, 49, of Manistee, Mich., whose husband, Stephen, 48, was killed in the ambush. He left three children in college.
But the families say they are more interested in answers than money.
Kim Johnson is the former wife of Tony D. Johnson, the Riverside victim, and the mother of their grown daughter, April. In her home in a middle-class neighborhood in Riverside, she leafs through pictures that Tony took only days before the convoy attack.
"They can't just walk away from this," she said, her eyes tearing. "This man will not have died in vain. He will not. He will not."
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