BAGHDAD, Iraq – It was probably the "closest call" I'd seen in my eight months in post-Saddam Iraq. It was bad. But it could have been a lot worse. Those were my first thoughts Tuesday night as I approached the battered scene of the suicide bomb attack on the 101st Airborne Division (search) base in the northern Iraqi town of Talafar (search).
Twelve hours before, at around five in the morning, a car packed with explosives had barreled around the corner near the neighborhood base and started swerving around the serpentine defenses leading up to the compound.
By that time, Specialist James Ross, from Boone County, Ky., up in the watchtower of the base, had spotted the car and started firing. He told me he let loose about a 100 rounds into the car (a fellow soldier on the ground was also firing.)
By that point the car, smoking and swerving, had made it in front of the barracks where the soldiers were mostly still getting some shuteye. That put the car a mere 30 yards from the building. That's when it blew up.
"All I saw was a kind of whitish light and it blew me back," Ross told me. Officers later told me experts estimated there were 1,000 pounds of explosives packed in the car. I was told the blast was heard 30 miles away. A mushroom-shaped cloud was seen 5 miles off.
And how did it feel right next door? One soldier told me he heard the machine gun fire first, saw a fireball of light rush by his window and then heard the blast.
Pieces of the car, the man inside, chunks of wall and other debris, shards of glass all went flying for hundreds of yards (bits and pieces of the man driving the car, I am told, were also found all around the area.)
The windows of the building where the troops were staying were sandbagged, but that didn't stop the metal framing of the window from bending in, and all the glass burst under the pressure.
All of this cutting the faces, arms, bodies of the troops inside.
The force of the blast blew people around. One soldier was on the top of one bunk and ended up in a ball on the floor on the other side of the room. One soldier after another told me it was, very simply, an incredible "wake-up call."
The U.S. military casualty toll was high, maybe the highest of the postwar scene here in Iraq from a single incident: 63 people were injured, five of them had to be sent out of the area for treatment, two of them might lose some or all of their vision, but none of the injuries were life-threatening. Mostly cuts and gashes, quickly stitched-up. Incredibly, no one was killed.
All the troops said the evacuation of the casualties was handled very well, and some of the troops by the day after were nervously laughing about it.
Still, it all could have been much, much worse, a near cataclysmic loss of life, the kind of event that, at least in the short run, could have affected the course of operations here in Iraq.
Col. Michael Linnington, commander of the 101st's 3rd Brigade, put it this way: "We almost had another Khobar Towers on our hands," referring to the bombing of the military building in Saudi Arabia in 1996 which left 19 soldiers dead.
In my estimation it could have even been closer to the 1983 bombing in Beirut, which left 241 U.S. forces dead.
What stopped it from becoming a tragedy? Specialist Ross' bullets for one thing. If the car bomber had made it another 20 feet down the street and around the corner into the compound itself, the blast would have occurred near the barracks with nothing to block it.
It also happened in the early hours of the morning. An hour later, I'm told, and soldiers would have been out in the yard doing exercises, and vehicles would have been moving around.
Also credit the defensive walls lining both of the sides of road. They were blown out on both sides but effectively sent the force of the explosion down the street as if it were a tunnel. I found the block of the car's engine 300 yards away.
All of this is not to slight the civilian impact of this blast. It has been reported there were several Iraqis hurt, including a 3-year-old girl. The school directly across from the blast site is structurally damaged, probably beyond repair (imagine if this had happened three hours later with the building packed with children.) Other nearby homes were damaged as well.
So who was behind the attack? Everyone we spoke with quickly said it must have been a foreign element, either Al Qaeda, or an Al Qaeda-type fighter who either participated in the bombing or instructed an Iraqi to do it.
While the troops in the town have been hit numerous times by rocket-propelled grenades, Improvised Explosive Devices and small arms fire, the source of all that is widely considered to be Iraqi ex-Saddam regime types, along with the rest of the small group of disgruntled people in the area. This attack was of a different, more horrible order.
And could it have been avoided? The Mayor of Talafar, Mohammed Aheen Othman, told me he had warned the Americans there should have been more defenses. "In my opinion," he told me, "they did not take care."
The 101st Airborne brass I spoke with would disagree with that, but in the days following the blast, soldiers were hard at work, not just repairing the damage but strengthening the defenses.
Still, the point was also made to me by the soldiers at that base: They were taking a risk, but it was a risk that they felt needed to be taken to do their job in the town.
One noted that you can't be isolated from the people you are trying to protect, defend and help. In addition to chasing the "bad guys," the soldiers there are involved in a slew of civil projects, rebuilding schools, clinics, government buildings and town infrastructure. All the stuff Saddam didn't do when he was around.
I asked Lt. James Wies if the sort of thing like this blast discouraged him. He replied: "We do a lot of good stuff for the people. Most of the Iraqis appreciate it. We just have a few bad apples. We have to get them and help the Iraqis." And the next day ... they were doing just that!