TOP STORY>> Khobar Towers: Survivor's Amazing Story
Oldham, a public affairs specialist with the 189th Airlift Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base, spoke recently at the Jacksonville Museum of Military History as part of its continuing lecture series.
He was two weeks away from coming home on June 25, 1996 when terrorists blew up a fuel truck with an estimated 5,000 pounds of explosives parked alongside concrete barriers protecting Building 131 at the Khobar complex at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The blast ripped the face off the towers. The complex included several buildings that housed U.S. and allied forces. The blast killed 19 airmen and injured 400 at the complex.
Before the blast, Oldham, 28 at the time, was coming back to the towers complex after working a 12-hour shift at King Abdul Aziz Air Base, less than a mile away. There was no housing on the air base, which was adjacent to a commercial runway.
In the evening between 8 and 10, the temperature cooled down, and it was a time for exercise. Oldham was back in his room around 9:50 p.m. and crawled into bed to sleep. Oldham and his roommate were talking and looking forward to getting back stateside. Ten minutes later, there was the loudest explosion he had ever heard.
“I thought a plane went down into the towers. There was a bright flash of light, and the building shook. It felt like it was coming down. The room went pitch black with a dusty concrete haze in the room,” said Oldham.
The dormitory where he was staying was not one of the towers that sustained the direct blast. Even though his building did not face the towers that took a direct hit, the concussion blew the interior doors off the hinges and forced the broken window glass inside the rooms.
“We were on the first floor and our building remained intact. I put my feet on the floor and got glass in them. I grabbed a shirt and my dog tags and went to go get the door, and it wasn’t there,” recalled Oldham.
The building’s residents went to the center of dining facility for a head count. He said he still didn’t know what had happened and saw security forces running with weapons. The airmen didn’t have
weapons, but there was no ground fire.
The area had no trauma center, so the injured were treated in the dormitories and transported to the local hospital. Oldham did not know the airmen who were killed.
The sergeant said he finally went to sleep around 6 a.m. on the floor of the dormitory. Power was on the next day. The broken windows were replaced with Plexiglas and plywood. He was back in his room within two days.
According to Oldham, the explosion occurred when a fuel truck tried to enter the Khobar complex at a single entry-point gate and was turned away. Then the truck drove around and parked on the outside perimeter of the complex’s protective concrete barriers. Men were seen running from the truck and into a car immediately before the blast.
After the blast, the airmen were restricted to the Khobar complex for 48 hours. Then they could leave, swap troops and go to work.
“Talk about post-traumatic stress syndrome — it affected me for about a year. I did not want to go into public places or the mall. I would look for escape routes. When I heard a vehicle backfire, I hit the floor quickly,” Oldham recalled.
He continued, “I could have used some help. The guys over in Iraq, what they are seeing, they need some help.”
Oldham stayed at the Khobar complex for two-and-a-half more weeks and came home June 27.
He said it wasn’t al Qaeda that was responsible for the terrorist attack.
A grand jury indicted 13 members of pro-Iran Saudi Hezbollah and one unidentified member of Lebanese Hezbollah, or the Party of God.
Nine of the 14 people where charged with 46 separate criminal counts, including conspiracy to kill Americans and employees of the U.S.; use of weapons of mass destruction and destroying U.S. property.
He continued, “It was the most deadly since the Beirut bombings in the 1980’s at that time.” According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Oldham said, the terrorists carried out the bombing to try to get Americans out of Saudi Arabia.
“When we would go downtown, you’d get a lot of looks. You can’t blend in in a Muslim country,” said Oldham.
The Air Force abandoned King Abdul Aziz Air Base, and moved operations to Prince Sultan Air Base, in an isolated area of Saudi Arabia, he said.