A Monday security breach at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, led to a deadly encounter between desperate people seeking to flee the Taliban and a C-17 aircraft from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, according to an Air Force statement released Tuesday.
The C-17 had just landed with a load of equipment at the Hamid Karzai International Airport when it was suddenly surrounded by hundreds of Afghan civilians. Before cargo could be offloaded, the crew was “faced with a rapidly deteriorating situation, the crew decided to depart the airfield as quickly as possible,” according to the statement from Ann Stefanek, chief of media operations for the Air Force.
Stefanek cited online video that depicted people falling from the aircraft after it departed, and said human remains also were found in the wheel well of the aircraft after it landed at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. It is currently impounded to provide time to collect the remains and inspect the aircraft.
“Our hearts go out to the families of the deceased,” Stefanek said in the statement, which added that an investigation is now underway to understand how the events unfolded.
An Air Force spokesperson confirmed the C-17 involved in the incident bore the markings of the 62nd Airlift Wing and 446th Airlift Wing. Those airlift wings are part of Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The 446th Airlift Wing supports global operations, and its missions in the past have included aeromedical support and dropping humanitarian supplies in Afghanistan.
The New York Times on Tuesday reported additional details of what went wrong.
Afghans, unbeknown to the crew, climbed into the wheel well into which the landing gear would fold after takeoff.
The crew contacted air traffic control, operated by U.S. military personnel, and the plane was cleared for takeoff, after spending only minutes on the ground.
Mindful of the people hanging onto the plane, the pilots taxied slowly at first. Military Humvees rushed alongside trying to chase people away and off the plane. Two Apache helicopter gunships flew low, seeking to scare some people away from the plane or push them off with their powerful rotor wash.
Minutes later, however, the pilot and co-pilot realized they had a serious problem: The landing gear would not fully retract. They sent one of the crew members down to peer through a small porthole that allows them to view potential problems in the wheel well while aloft.
The crew then saw the remains of an undetermined number of Afghans who had stowed away — apparently crushed by the landing gear. Scenes captured in videos of the flight showed other people plunging to their death.
Mental health counselors and chaplains, alerted to the tragedy, met the crew as they landed in Qatar after a four-hour flight.
Pentagon officials, in briefings with reporters, have said that airport operations were shut down after the security breach.
Since then, the airport has opened to military aircraft and a limited number of commercial flights as part of a mission to evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghans eligible for Special Immigrant Visas in the aftermath of the Taliban take over of Afghanistan.
U.S. commanders in Kabul have had contact with Taliban commanders outside the airport, and so far have had “no hostile interactions, no attack and no threat by the Taliban,” Army Maj Gen. William “Hank” Taylor said Tuesday.
He said that nine C-17s arrived at the airport during the previous night, delivering equipment and about 1,000 U.S. troops. Seven C-17s departed with between 700 and 800 passengers, including 165 Americans.
He said the evacuation effort, as it ramps up, could airlift between 5,000 and 9,000 people a day. At this point, it is scheduled to end by the end of the month.
Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton and The New York Times contributed to this report.