"It's the deadliest attack ever on a U.S. diplomatic mission to that point. It takes many years to confirm that it was an Iranian operation, organized by operatives from their Revolutionary Guard. Nobody understands it that day, but a new kind of war has begun." (David Ignatius in The Washington Post, April 17, 2008, 25 years after the event.)
It is one o'clock in the afternoon, of Monday, April 18, 1983. I am at my desk facing the front of my office on the third floor of our embassy in West Beirut. Six hours earlier, I had walked the short distance from my ground-floor appointment to the embassy for my daily pre-work Arabic-language lesson. Entering the embassy, I had my usual seven o'clock encounter with Mohammed, the young Palestinian security guard on duty. As I passed, Mohammed gave his usual greeting: "Good morning, Mr. Mohammed, how's it going?" John!" I replied, as usual, "Good morning, Mohammed, how's it going?"
"Wonderful, Mr. John, wonderful."
It has been a quiet morning, and I am enjoying the opportunity to address some office issues neglected during my temporary exile to East Beirut, during last year's Israeli invasion. Making some headway, I decide to continue working rather than go down to the ground-floor embassy cafeteria for lunch. My good friend, Bill McIntyre, however, is in the cafeteria. Bill is acting director of the USAID office, and he is meeting an American journalist. Two other friends from the USAID office, Anne Dammarell and Bob Pearson, are also in the cafeteria, as is Bill's wife, Mary Lee. Tom Blacka, an AID officer I knew years before is in the cafeteria. He has just arrived in Beirut, coming out of retirement to take a job in Lebanon, and he is happy, a once more to be in the thick of things.
I am about to turn to the right and begin drafting a document on my manual typewriter. When I do, I will face the side of my office and the floor-to-ceiling glass windows, through which I can look across the broad thoroughfare in front of the embassy to the Mediterranean Sea. The embassy is in an old hotel building, and many offices like mine are oddly shaped with large windows.
Immediately behind me, but not accessible from my office, is another office shared by Hassan Assaran and Edgard Khoury, two of the twelve Lebanese who staff my small public affairs operation, responsible for the cultural and media functions of the embassy, the latter including my own role as embassy spokesman. Edgard has a Danish wife, Ermaline, and two children, Rudy and Tanya. He is the only one of my Lebanese staff who appeared daily throughout the time in East Beirut and worked with me throughout the Israeli invasion the year before. At my two Christmases in Lebanon, Edgard and Ermaline have invited me to their home for dinner, and, most recently, they asked me to bring along my friend Ryan Crocker, the political counselor. Hassan, who shares the office with Edgard, is Egyptian, employed years before in a regional printing plant operated by the US in Beirut. Both Hassan and Edgard are in their office, and I have met with them earlier for our daily review of the local Arabic-language newspapers.
To my left is a wall, and, on the other side of this wall is the central corridor running he length of the third floor. There is no door in this wall, and, to access the corridor, I must pass through the office directly in front of me.
This office, connected to mine by a door, has its own floor-to-ceiling glass windows. It is occupied by Beth Samuel, our American secretary. Beth, a dear and trusted friend from a previous posting, is married to Leonardo, a talented Filipino musician and craftsman. The year before, when I desperately needed help and when no foreign service secretary would accept the Beirut posting, Beth called from Washington and, exaggerating her Texas twang, said, "Honey, Nardo and I are so desperate to get out of Washington we'll do anything, even if it means coming to Beirut and working for you."
A nearby office on the same side of the corridor is occupied by two Lebanese secretaries, Maha Sa'ab and Maggie Teen. Maha is a quiet and gentle woman. Maggie is intelligent, good-natured, outspoken and loyal, and she is very competent. Five more of our Lebanese staff work on one side or the other of the third-floor corridor. Our driver, Salim, is in the embassy motor pool. Souhail Abou-Halkah and Riad Abdul-Massih work in our library on the embassy's ground floor. As usual, Riad is immaculately dressed in his grey suit, white shirt and grey silk tie. Souhail forgot his eyeglasses this morning and asked Riad to drive him home to retrieve hem. Riad said he was busy, so Souhail asked our senior Lebanese staffer, Elias Kawar, to drive him.
Five floors above me, on the top floor of the embassy, Ambassador Robert Dillon has changed clothes and is about to leave his office to jog on the campus of the American University of Beirut, adjoining the embassy. In his fifth floor office at the other end of the building, political counselor Ryan Crocker is editing a cable. Six feet away, his wife Christine, who works as his secretary, is just finishing her lunch. Other political officers work nearby. On the ground floor, Lisa Piasik, with whom I studied Arabic in Washington, has just left her office for a language lesson on the third floor. Her colleagues in the consular section are anticipating their lunch break. Among them is good friend, Bedros Anserian, with whom I had worked closely in East Beirut during the Israeli occupation.
As I sit in my office, I feel more comfortable and less threatened in Beirut than I have at any time since my arrival in August 1981. The embassy staff, American and Lebanese, are a relatively small group, and the dangers of Beirut have drawn us close. We party, travel and play volleyball together. We watch the backs of one another. The friendships are unique in my foreign service experience, encompassing, among others, Ambassador Dillon, the staff of various other embassy sections, the security staff and the drivers. The Lebanese have invited Beth and me into their homes for meals with their families. I also have close friendships with colleagues in other embassies--German, French, British and Italian--and an extraordinary range of friendships in the Lebanese community. The shared trials, dangers and challenges of life and work in Beirut during the Israeli invasion have cemented friendships more tightly. Scattered during the Israeli invasion, some in the West Beirut embassy, some in the East Beirut compound of the ambassador's residence, some isolated, some evacuated to the U.S. and some elsewhere, we are back in the embassy and together again. We can do our work properly. With the Israelis and Palestinians gone, the militia checkpoints have been dismantled, and we can now move freely from one part of the city to the other. One evening a few weeks go, Beth and I drove over to East Beirut for pizza. The restaurant staff were astonished when they learned we came from the US embassy.
A US-led multinational force is on the ground. It was here before. After the PLO left, it withdrew and then returned after massacres in Palestinian refugee camps and the assassination of President Bashir Gemayal. Now Bashir's brother, Amin, is president, the multinational force is back, and life as close to normal as it gets in Beirut. We are welcome where we have never been welcome before. Some months before, a group of six Egyptian professors at Beirut Arab University invited me to visit their institution and asked for my cooperation. Beirut Arab University students are radical and stridently anti-American, and this opportunity was unprecedented. In response, I ask our headquarters in Washington to recruit some American experts on Islam who come to Lebanon. They are welcomed at the university. The next morning, their presentations are reported favorably on the front page of al-Nida, a communist newspaper consistently hostile to the US. The only disturbing note is that, recently, one of the Egyptian professors called on me and said they must discontinue their cooperation. When I relate this to Ryan Crocker, our political ounselor, he tells me that there have been other disturbing signs that things maynot be as happy as they seem.
As I am about to turn toward the windows and begin typing, Mohammed, the friendly security guard in front of the embassy, ascertains that Ambassador Dillon is in the building and that the circular drive in front of the building is clear. He gives a signal. A pick-up truck loaded with explosive enters the drive, crashes into the front of the embassy and detonates. Propane tanks in the cafeteria kitchen ignite, and, among the many people killed is Bill McIntyre, my friend. His wife, Mary Lee, and my friends, Anne Dammarell and Bob Pearson, are badly injured. Tom Blacka is killed. In the consular section on the first floor, Bedros Anserian, is injured by flying glass and eventually loses one eye. On the eighth floor, Ambassador Dillon is knocked off his feet and injured by debris from a falling wall. Altogether, 63 people die in the explosion, and scores more are injured.
The central part of the front of the embassy collapses. The fracture line on the third floor runs through the center of my office, and my chair and desk disappear as a portion of the floor falls.
Hearing the explosion and seeing the smoke, doctors at the American University of Beirut Hospital, on the hill behind the embassy, immediately prepare to deal with multiple cases of massive trauma. One of the doctors is a young plastic surgeon, Usama Hamdan.
On the way to collect Souhail's eyeglasses, Elias Kawar and Souhail hear the explosion and reverse course to return to the embassy. Ryan Crocker later tells a journalist that the blast blew his pencil out his hand. Ambassador Dillon's wife, Sue, and New York Times journalist Tom Friedman tell the ambassador it was the loudest explosion they ever...