Remarks at Commemorative Ceremony on the 25th Anniversary of the Bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, LebanonRobert S. Dillon, Fomer Ambassador to Lebanon (1981-1983)
Benjamin Franklin Room
April 18, 2008
(As Prepared Remarks)
Twenty-five years ago today, 17 Americans and 25 Foreign Service Nationals were killed when a truck loaded with explosives rammed into the entrance of the American Embassy in Beirut. Ten contractors employed at the Embassy and 10 visa applicants and passers-by were also killed. We believe that the immediate perpetrators were members of a Shia family from the Bekaa Valley under the direction of members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Forty-four other people were in the Embassy and survived. The building was a former eight floor hotel facing the sea on Beirut’s famous Corniche. It comprised a center building and two large adjoining wings. Most casualties were on the first floor of the center building, in the cafeteria, and in the stack of office in the seven stories rising above the entrance. The explosion pancaked six of those offices onto each other. The top floor was braced in a different way, and although the ceilings and walls collapsed, the four people on that floor escaped with minor injuries. I was one of the four and was dug out of the rubble of my office by our DCM, Bob Pugh, my secretary, Dorothy Pascoe, and Admin Officer Tom Baron. Many of you know that Bob Pugh’s wife, Bonnie, was subsequently killed in a terror attack in the skies above Chad where he was serving as Ambassador.
The central elevator shaft and stairwell were destroyed. We found our way through dust and smoke to a stairway in an adjoining wing. As we came down the rubble-filled stairs, we knew that surely many had been injured, but it was not until we got to the second floor that we saw that people were dead. We realized that, at Post One, Marine Corporal Bobby McMaugh had been killed. My social secretary, Amal Ma’akaroun, body guard Terry Gilden, and driver Cesar Bathiard had all gone down to wait for me at the entrance while I took a phone call. They were all dead.
We went to work. Everyone seemed instinctively to know what to do. Bob Pugh took charge of rescue operations. Political Chief Ryan Crocker and other political-economic officers assisted him. Security officer Dick Gannon, Gunny Charley Light, and the Marine Guards secured classified documents and set up a defensive perimeter around the Embassy. Surviving Communications officers locked up communications gear. Consular Chief Diane Dillard rallied the survivors of her section and began identifying remains.
We put together a list of everyone we believed had been in the Embassy and started checking off survivors. I got on the phone to the State Ops Center. We gave names of survivors as we verified them. At first, this was a fairly happy task, but as the minutes passed, we saw the gaps in the list and we began to grasp how many of our friends and colleagues had been lost. The families of our Lebanese employees gathered to learn the fate of their loved ones. Some stood there for five days until we reluctantly told them no more identifiable bodies could be found.
Our Admin Section was decimated, as was the Public Affairs Section. Members of the CIA station had gathered to meet with Bob Ames, the Agency’s leading Mid East analyst, who had arrived the night before. All present were killed. There were two survivors outside the office. The Defense Attaché and Defense Cooperation offices were destroyed. Sergeants Ben Maxwell and Mark Salazar were killed. Ray Byers survived with terrible injuries.
Acting AID Chief Bob McIntyre had been in the cafeteria being interviewed by journalist Janet Stevens. Both were killed, as were newly-arrived AID officers Al Votaw and Tom Blacka. Bob’s wife, Mary Lee, was present and somehow survived. Anne Dammarell and Bob Pearson, also in the cafeteria, were, along with Ray Byers, the most seriously injured American survivors. When I saw Anne being pulled from the rubble, it never occurred to me that she would survive. She was in the hospital for months and is here today.
Lebanese disaster workers arrived quickly. With assistance from American Marines and French soldiers, they searched the unstable rubble, that in itself a dangerous task. Survivors were taken to the AUB hospital, an institution with lots of experience in handling trauma cases. In addition to the most seriously injured, there were many with numerous glass cuts in their faces and upper bodies. After five hours, we found no more survivors and after five days ended recovery operations.
Press and TV flooded the area. Public Affairs Officer John Reid, himself injured, guided me through the painful but important task of talking to the press and the cameras. For whatever we did right, I give him full credit.
We started to get help. The State Department and other foreign affairs agencies rushed people out. The British Ambassador, without consulting London, made room for us in his embassy a few hundred yards down the Corniche where we set up offices and a commo center. Other offices were set up in the large apartment house next to the Embassy.
We were so absorbed in doing things no one had time to think about what had happened. I may have been typical. I was exhausted but “normal” until a week later, when I stood in the AUB chapel in front of the survivors and the families of the dead and missing. With John Reid’s help, I had put together a few words to say. I got most of the way through it, but a sentence or two from the end, reality set in, tears welled up, and I couldn’t finish.
We were fully conscious of being in the most dangerous city in the world. Car bombs and hand-held rockets were commonplace in Beirut, but we had had no experience with a suicide bomber in a moving vehicle. Materials had just arrived and we were about to commence the erection of barriers along the street. Barriers would surely have made a difference, but the fundamental problem was that we were too close to the street to mount an effective defense against a massive explosion.
The 1982 Israeli invasion had thoroughly radicalized the Shias of South Lebanon. Many of them believed the United States was complicit with the Israelis. We knew there were Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Bekaa Valley. We knew they had close relations with emerging radical Shia groups. We did not know until it was too late that we had become their major target. They succeeded in mounting a horrifyingly murderous terrorist attack.
Let me finish by telling you how proud I was, and am, of the way Foreign Service people reacted in the mist of chaos and massive destruction. Acts of courage and unselfishness were commonplace. To those who are here today, I offer my sincerest admiration and affection. You were wonderful. To the families of the fallen: your loved ones were people of whom you can be immensely proud. They were in Beirut to serve the United States, our country, in which they believed deeply. Although none anticipated their ultimate sacrifice, they were fully conscious of the dangers they faced and yet, did their jobs with amazingly good spirit and grace. They will not be forgotten. We honor them.
Released on April 18, 2008