At first, Elif Berkel recalled, she heard what sounded like the click-clack of a wheeled suitcase on the sidewalk outside her apartment building. Someone was coming home from a...

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — At first, Elif Berkel recalled, she heard what sounded like the click-clack of a wheeled suitcase on the sidewalk outside her apartment building. Someone was coming home from a long weekend, she thought. Then the cracking sounds got louder, she said, and she and her husband wondered if a family in their gated community was celebrating a wedding by firing into the air.

Finally, the Turkish couple decided it must be fireworks, and they flung open the sliding glass door in their living room to take a look.

Suddenly, they recalled yesterday, they saw a huge orange fireball that covered the sky above their compound, al-Hamra, and they were blown so far back by the blast that they hit a wall 10 feet away.

At almost the same moment — about 11:25 Monday night — similar explosions occurred in two other gated communities, Vinnell and Ishbiliya, in the sprawling Saudi Arabian capital.

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The sequence of violence, Saudi and U.S. officials said, was identical in all three compounds: gunmen clashed with sentries outside the walls, reached in and pushed a button that opened the gate. As the intruders kept shooting, at least one vehicle packed with explosives was driven into the compound and the driver searched for where a bomb would have the most devastating impact.

In Vinnell — a housing and training compound operated by Vinnell Arabia, a local subsidiary of Virginia-based Vinnell, for the Saudi National Guard — that place was next to the building for bachelors and men living there without their spouses.

The attackers parked a truck filled with what officials estimated was 400 pounds of plastic explosives near the four-story building, officials said, and when it blew, it ripped off an entire side of the building and damaged every structure in the compound.

The devastation was striking. Sheet-metal roofs collapsed in every building. Air conditioners were blown in. Just about every window was destroyed. The Dodge Ram truck was an upturned skeleton beside a crater 10 feet deep and 10 feet wide. Another car used by the attackers, a white Ford Crown Victoria left outside, was impaled on the gate.

The bachelor’s building, one side crumbled to dust, exposed trinkets of the men’s lives. A red towel, an orange towel and a pair of bedsheets dangled over edges where walls had once stood. A large wall mirror survived the blast, but was horribly crooked. A U.S. flag was twisted around a drain pipe.

A haven no more

The building housed 70 men, most of them Americans, but as it happened 50 were away on a desert training mission. About 10 died in the blast, U.S. officials said.

Elif Berkel, her husband, Jelal, and their 3-year-old son were luckier, escaping with bruises and sore elbows from the explosion in the 600-unit al-Hamra. Their apartment was 150 feet away from the blast. But they quickly listed victims they knew who lived in the fancy villas in the center of the compound, where the attackers parked their vehicle before it exploded: the two girls from Jordan whose father was in a coma; the man from Lebanon; and at least seven or eight others.

Jelal Berkel, an executive for the Saudi version of Frito-Lay, pulled out his video camera and showed jerky images he had made yesterday: huge window frames blown inside apartments onto people’s beds, walls blown to dust.

Saudis said the compounds are a legacy of the 1970s oil boom, when foreign contractors set up company-run housing facilities so their employees could live outside the rigors of Saudi Arabia’s Islamic strictures.

Many of those Western workers are gone. But the compounds have enjoyed a resurgence for non-Saudi Muslims and even Saudis who want to live in an area with more relaxed social rules than the rest of the country.

One Saudi official said the compounds are especially popular for wives whose husbands travel a lot, because they can swim in public and do not need to cover themselves according to Saudi custom.

Al-Hamra, with its recreation center, swimming pools and large imposing walls and gates, had always seemed secure to residents. But, looking back, the Berkels said, they were being foolish. There were few guards, and they had no guns.

Many of the neighbors who fled the country during the war with Iraq returned, thinking the worst was over. “Everything seemed so happy and so relaxed that everything was back to normal,” Elif Berkel said.

Now, the couple said, they plan to leave the country today.

Simple idea turns deadly

In recent weeks, U.S. officials in Saudi Arabia expressed deep concerned that al-Qaida may be planning an attack, especially after the seizure of a large arsenal of explosives and weapons.

They posted many warnings, but the compounds seemed secure. But, one official conceded, no one had thought of the simple idea of shooting the guards and pushing the button. Yesterday, a new warning from the U.S. Embassy was sent to Americans resident here: stay home, stay away from windows and doors and keep your cellphones on and charged.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose tour of the Middle East was jolted by the attacks, rearranged his brief visit to Saudi Arabia to tour the damage at Vinnell, said to be the worst-hit of the three compounds.

“In terms of physical damage and casualties this (Vinnell) is the worst,” largely because of its older architectural design, said a U.S. Army official assisting the Saudis.

Many buildings were made of cinder blocks covered with stucco. U.S. officials declined to say how many people were killed at Vinnell, which was home to more than 500 advisers, trainers and contractors.

As Powell toured the blast site, a sandstorm appeared, covering everyone’s clothes and hair with dirt. Insulation rolled through the streets like tumbleweeds. The sandstorm seemed to cut short the tour, and Powell spoke briefly to the handful of reporters accompanying him.

“Notwithstanding what you see here today and the damage you see here today, it will not deter the United States,” he said.

Then Powell’s feet crunched across broken glass and cinder-block chips as he and his entourage left.