It had been a massive, four-story building that had withstood air strikes and artillery — now reduced to a mountain of rubble. Enormous chunks of concrete, their twisted steel reinforcements ripped bare, balanced precariously on piles of debris. Only cracked concrete frames on the ground floor bore any semblance to what had stood there before.
As I watched crews struggle to remove wreckage from what remained of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, I thought to myself, "My God. How did anyone survive?"
The Oct. 23, 1983 truck bombing that leveled the barracks near Beirut's airport claimed the lives of 241 American service members in the deadliest attack on U.S. forces abroad since World War II. The attack, amid Lebanon's civil war, was one of the United States' first experiences with the suicide bombings that over the past 30 years have become a trademark of Islamic militants.
By the time I arrived, the bodies were gone, and survivors evacuated. The day of the blast, I was in Cairo, where I was The Associated Press' bureau chief, and I traveled to Beirut in the immediate aftermath.
For me the shock was all the more intense because I had known that building — and doubtless some of the Marines who had perished inside.
During repeated assignments in Lebanon, I spent hours on the barracks' roof, along with other journalists, observing militias on the hills above hit their rivals and sometimes the Marines with artillery fire.
I recall watching visiting Marine generals scurrying for cover one afternoon when militias lobbed mortar shells near their convoy — to the amusement of some younger Marines.
The roof was also the site of the Marines' link to a radio network with the French and British to exchange information about battles around Beirut. If you could tolerate the blazing sun and long periods of boredom, it was a great place to track the fighting.
The structure — once an administrative building for the airport — was rock-solid. It had survived hits by Israeli air and artillery fire in 1982, well before the Marines moved in.
Yet it was pulverized by a truck bomb that exploded with the force of 21,000 pounds of TNT just before 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday. Minutes later, a second suicide bomber blasted the French military barracks a few miles north, killing 58 paratroopers and the wife and four children of the Lebanese janitor.
Shiite militias that were just starting to coalesce into what is now Hezbollah were behind the attacks.
The Marines, along with French and British troops, arrived in Beirut in August 1982. The Marines were to supervise the evacuation of Palestinian guerrillas under a deal to end Israel's invasion of Lebanon.
Instead, the experience became a textbook example of "mission creep."
After the Palestinians departed, the Marines did as well. But they were ordered back about two weeks later when the assassination of Lebanon's new Christian president sparked new fighting among the country's factions.
Syrian-backed militias frequently fired on the Marines' base and barracks, about 10 miles from downtown Beirut, to pressure the United States, which supported the Lebanese government.
A month before the bombing, U.S. warships fired on Syrian-backed militias, and French jets attacked militias in the Bekaa Valley.
Among anti-government factions, those attacks shattered any notion of neutrality.
The Marine commander, Col. Timothy Geraghty, recalled telling his staff that "we were going to pay in blood."
Within months after the bombing, the U.S. Marines were out of Lebanon. The civil war raged for another seven years.
Now on the site of the barracks is a large building of the Lebanese mail service, Liban Post, inside a closed military zone near the airport. On one side, access is barred by a military checkpoint and on the other, by a checkpoint of Hezbollah, now Lebanon's most powerful force.
The following is a gallery of images from the time of the Marine barracks bombing and today.
Robert H. Reid, Berlin bureau chief, was chief of bureau for The Associated Press in Cairo from 1982-1986 and has covered Middle East events since 1978. Follow him at: http://twitter.com/rhreid .
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