Wolf Blitzer / CNN – 2006-10-27 23:44:51
Live Report on the Explosions at Forward Operating Base Falcon
Wolf Blitzer / CNN
I’m Wolf Blitzer, you’re in THE SITUATION ROOM.
But first to breaking news we’re following in Baghdad. Arwa Damon is standing by there. Jamie McIntyre is at the Pentagon. Arwa, what do we know about this huge explosion that’s rocking the southern part of the Iraqi capital?
ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what we know right now is actually very little. What we have heard from the US military is that a fire started at an ammunition dump at a base in southwestern Baghdad. This is a small base that’s not much bigger than about maybe half a mile by half a mile. And these explosions were huge. I mean, huge.
We could not even begin to start counting them. They shook the very roof that I’m standing on and they continued for over an hour. We saw a huge fire raging which you can see in the images that were broadcast from here as well and it was just one detonation after the next. It actually took quite some time for all of the pieces to start to come together.
The US military finally releasing information that they believe it was a fire that began at an ammunition dump that was cooking off ammunition that was there. The question is, though, Wolf, was this an accident or was this an insurgent attack that actually started this fire?
BLITZER Arwa, it’s called the forward operating base, falcon. Have you ever been there in your various embed operations?
DAMON Yes, Wolf, I’ve been there once and it essentially is in this area that actually is known as being — it’s located at the tip of what’s called the triangle of death. It’s in an area that’s called Al Dora, it’s in southwestern Baghdad. It’s a fairly mixed, very volatile neighborhood. It’s a small base. It’s a forward operating base. A lot of these bases are smaller than the other bigger locations that we see in this country, generally home to a smaller number of troops — Wolf.
BLITZER Any idea how many US troops, coalition forces might be based there because this explosion looks like it’s covering a pretty huge area and even though no casualties have yet been reported I’m just looking at the pictures and I’m very worried.
DAMON Well, Wolf, the last time I was there it was home to a company of US troops which is generally a little over a hundred troops. Now, that number can vary. It really does depend, but yes, you know looking at the pictures that you’re seeing and what we saw from our rooftop, the explosions that we felt, it is very troubling.
BLITZER Just give our viewers a sense from where you are to this base, you can see the explosions even though, how many miles away would this Falcon — this forward operating base be?
DAMON It’s about four miles away from where we are and this flame that arose from these explosions was just huge burning over the Baghdad skyline. And from four miles away, I have to say, Wolf, the explosions shook the entire building that we’re in.
BLITZER And we’re showing our viewers now some new video that we’re just getting in and the impact of this explosion four miles away. You could feel it where you are. Anything that the Iraqi media have said about this or is the information so sketchy right now the only thing we’re getting is this little statement from the US military?
DAMON Well, the Iraqi media broadcast the pictures and also al- Iraqiya, which is the state-owned TV channel here, was also running breaking news saying that a fire had broken out at an ammunition dump at a US base. Basically reporting what was said in the US military statement. We did speak with the Iraqi police, however, they are as of now and they have checked with the hospitals reporting no other casualties. So that is pretty much what we know right now from the Iraqi side, Wolf.
BLITZER You know I just want to show our viewers who may just be joining us right now, this explosion that occurred just a little while ago in the southern part of Baghdad at this US forward operating base called Falcon. There it is. A huge explosion rocking the Iraqi capital. You could feel it at least four miles away where Arwa is located right now. Let’s go to the Pentagon. Jamie McIntyre is our senior Pentagon correspondent. Jamie what are you hearing from sources there?
MCINTYRE Well, Wolf, they’re basically confirming what they’ve said there, that this indeed started in a fire at this ammunition depot at the forward operating base. And of course you know you couldn’t have a worse place to have a fire than a fireworks factory or an ammunition depot and you’ve seen the pyrotechnics that have resulted. It’s amazing if this holds up that the US military reports that there have been no casualties at this point. They said they’ve taken every precaution to just simply allow the —
BLITZER Jamie, I’ll interrupt you because you’re looking at these live pictures and even as you were speaking, there was another huge explosion. You saw that fireball going up. These are live pictures we’re showing our viewers from this US military base in southern Baghdad where one explosion is coming in multiple streams right after another.
MCINTYRE It’s creating a chain reaction. You can see again the term the military uses cooking off. It sounds kind of benign, but it can be quite dangerous particularly with the amount of munitions that are involved here. And you can see from the blinding flashes that there’s a significant amount of ordinance exploding. Again, the US military says that they have taken the precautions to clear the area, but there’s no — this is not a fire that you can fight.
You can’t go in and pour water on this kind of thing. You just have to wait for it to finish and at the end of day we’ll see when morning comes, probably. We’ll see exactly what the effect has been. But it’s obviously an extremely dangerous situation and the fact that the US military says that there has been no casualties at this point is really amazing.
BLITZER And there’s no way of knowing whether this was a fire that just started, an explosion that just started by accident or whether insurgents may have played a role in creating this chain reaction.
MCINTYRE It could have been the result of an attack. It could have been the result of an accident. It could have been the result of sabotage on the inside. That’s something that an investigation will have to try to determine.
But of course, when you have this much ordinance and munitions going off and creating the damage that that’s going to be creating, it’s going to be extremely difficult to piece together a crime scene as it were, to see what exactly happened and what sparked this massive burn off of ammunition at this forward base. And you can see it’s far from over — Wolf.
BLITZER Stand by, Jamie. Arwa Damon is in Baghdad. Arwa, these pictures, I don’t know if you can see what’s going on from your vantage point but our viewers can — look at that. There’s one explosion after another and they’re getting seemingly even more powerful even as we watch these pictures unfold right now. Can you feel and hear and see those explosions from your vantage point about four miles away?
DAMON We can still hear them, Wolf, and feel them slightly. Again, they are not right now, to us at least standing here as powerful as the initial detonations were, but while we were listening to Jamie talking, we could definitely still hear them. They do sound a lot fainter though and a lot further away to us from our vantage point here.
BLITZER There they are, they’re still going. The US clearly had a lot of ammunition at this site there and it looks like one explosion triggering the next explosion. A lot of weaponry going up right now at this forward operating base that’s called Falcon. Arwa, you were there and based on your recollection there were about a hundred US troops there, but were there many Iraqi forces, other coalition forces as well?
DAMON Wolf, at the time that I was there, there were not. However, you know, things do change here very often. It is very likely especially with the operations that we have going on right now that are really bringing together US and Iraqi troops, that there were Iraqi forces there at that time. Of course that is just speculation at this point. Again, all we really have to go on right here is this one US military statement that came out saying that it was a fire that began at this ammunition dump.
However, if this was an ammunition dump and what they have there is based on ammunition they’ve collected from raids, collected from perhaps IEDs that they have found, I mean we’re talking about a lot of very dangerous materials. We’re talking 155 millimeter mortar shells, we’re talking all sorts of ammunition that the insurgents tend to use against US forces here that could have all been collected at this one location, Wolf.
BLITZER And this is an area that’s heavily populated, I take it in the southwestern part of the Iraqi capital. You pointed out it’s an area that’s known as the triangle of death given the fact that there’s a mixed Sunni-Shia residency there. It’s not something that people can simply go in there, firefighters could go in there and start dealing with it. This potentially is posing a really enormous threat to all the residents in the area as well.
DAMON Absolutely, and it is — al Dora is a very populated area. In fact, it’s kind of middle class under the times of Saddam Hussein, at least it was known as being middle class. It’s been the scene of multiple attacks in the past and it’s always a challenge here for firefighters to move around. Of course, being that it is a US military base they will have their own plan in place, perhaps even firefighters on that base to be able to deal with this kind of a population.
But if it has spilled outside of the confines of the base and is affecting the civilian population, that is going to poise a great challenge to Iraqi security forces and to Iraqi firefighters that are going to try to get down to that area to contain the damage as much as possible. But again, what we do know now from the Iraqi emergency police who have said that they did make calls to all of the hospitals in that area, no reports of casualties just yet Wolf.
BLITZER All right, let’s hope it stays that way. But it looks enormous. Jamie McIntyre is getting information from his sources at the Pentagon.
Jamie, as you look at these pictures and these multiple explosions one after another after another. What do you think?
MCINTYRE Well, you know obviously this is a serious situation. The Pentagon obviously is getting the information the same way we are. In fact, they’re probably looking at some of these same live pictures on television sets around the Pentagon. We should mention that the soldiers who are based there, we believe are from the 4th infantry division and we’re told a spokesman from the 4th infantry division will put out a further statement soon, beyond what we’ve already been told is that this was an ammunition supply point, ASP as they call them in the military, at this forward operating base.
So they would have had a huge stockpile of munitions there as Arwa explained. And you know what has happened is once one of these gets underway and it starts setting off sympathetic explosions, you know, ancillary explosions, it’s a chain reaction that you really can’t stop until it’s over.
It’s just too dangerous to go anywhere near that. The multinational forces in Iraq say they are attempting to take every precaution to protect both the soldiers and the surrounding population as this ammunition “cooks off” is the term they use.
But it is an extremely, you know, dangerous situation, you know volatile is literally the case, when you are talking about these kind of munitions. And there’s really nothing they can do at this point except try to make sure they’ve isolated the area and to wait for all of the ammunition to cook off.
BLITZER Where is the 4th infantry division assuming that the troops who are there, the US forces who are there at this forward operating base, Falcon, where are they headquartered based?
MCINTYRE Well the 4th infantry division has been — a brigade from the 4th infantry division has been deployed in the Baghdad area. It’s one of the more dangerous areas of Iraq, obviously, with the offensive underway now to try to retake the city. And obviously we have significant forces in the Baghdad area and in the al Anbar Province, US military does. And this is just one of the small forward operating bases.
But you can see it has a significant amount of ammunition, it’s something they use a lot of and that they store. And of course the regulations for storing ammunition require all kinds of precautions. The US military has all kinds of procedures to avoid this kind of situation. So again, without speculating we have no idea whether this was something that was caused by accident or by some hostile act.
BLITZER And we’re standing by for a statement and a little bit more information from the US military. Let’s go back to Arwa in Baghdad. Arwa, we see these flashes. There it is again, every few seconds another huge flash which means that more weaponry or ammunition or explosives simply detonating and causing what we see right in the middle of the screen right there, one explosion after another.
It’s almost like a firecracker although this is a relatively sizable area now that is engulfed in flames and explosions. Even though you’re four miles away, you can see this, you can feel it.
DAMON That’s right, Wolf, we can. In fact, just as you were speaking with Jamie, again, we saw more flashes, again we felt more tremors on our building. Which is like you just mentioned four miles away and I cannot emphasize how large these explosions were at first when all this ammunition started cooking off. Shaking our building and we’re four miles away, you can only just really begin to imagine what residents in that area are going through, what they are possibly thinking might be going on in their neighborhood.
These are incredibly volatile times especially in the capital of Baghdad and for something like this to be happening for the entire capital, especially the central part and then the southwestern part where al Dora is located. For these explosions to be felt throughout, that is definitely at least terrifying for the population here. In fact, we could hear helicopters going overhead right now, Wolf.
BLITZER Whoa! Look at that one. The spoke that’s coming from these explosions Arwa, if the wind is blowing towards you, pretty soon if not already you’re going to start smelling what is the residue from these explosions. Is the wind blowing toward you?
DAMON Actually, Wolf, not just yet is my best guess. Where I’m standing right now, my direct vantage point is not that specific location. I can see it kind of — I guess if I was standing behind the camera facing the other direction I would be able to have a better vantage point as to exactly what is going right now. But on my walk up here to this roof we could not smell it just yet, but I do have to say the traditional smell of Baghdad is definitely of metal burning and that is just the way things are here right now.
BLITZER And it’s approaching what, 2 a.m. in Baghdad right now. Clearly, the middle of the night if people were sleeping, guess what? This is interrupting their sleep. Very, very worrisome developments because it doesn’t look like these explosions are at all ending. We’re showing our viewers these live pictures — our camera showing what’s going on in southern Baghdad.
DAMON That’s right. It’s got to be very trying for the people that are here. Remember, they’re living in such a difficult time right now. There are explosions here that occur nonstop and nightfall brings very little peace for the people especially in the capital of Baghdad. There are constantly attacks that happen all the time. People increasingly are living with this sense of despair.
So when you have an incident like what we’re seeing tonight, even if it is an accident and it is only this ammunition that is cooking off. Even if it wasn’t an insurgent attack, number one, they have to cope with the fear and we’re not just talking amongst adults, we’re talking amongst children that really don’t know what is happening out in the streets.
They’re not really fully grasping what is happening. For them to be woken up out of their beds in such extreme circumstances — especially for those that are located nearby to the base. I mean those explosions must have — who knows, perhaps even shattered their windows. An incredibly difficult night for everybody here, Wolf.
BLITZER Arwa, stand by. Jamie McIntyre is at the Pentagon. Jamie, it looks like these explosions, these fires are not going down I guess until all of those — the ammunition dump there is burnt up, there’s nothing that anyone can do about this.
MCINTYRE Well we are hearing from the US military spokesman for the 4th infantry division that they do believe they successfully evacuated all military and civilian personnel from this forward operating base as they’re dealing with this — what is being described now as a fire at the ammunition supply point.
The ammunition that was stored there apparently includes tank rounds, artillery rounds and various — whoa, that was a big one, various small rounds of ammunition. But you can just see, you know, not to make light of it, but it looks like something you might see on the fourth of July in the United States. Huge explosions there, and there’s really not much they can do.
We still don’t know the origin of the fire. They’re trying to handle the situation. Again, they do not report any casualties at this point, but you know, when those munitions go off they can send things way into the air. They can come down in civilian neighborhoods and so it may be some time before you find out if anyone has actually been hurt by this.
BLITZER Jamie you can see the flames, the sparks going further and further from the center of this area. In fact, if you take a look at the geographic area that we’re watching only 15 or 20 minutes ago, it’s a much bigger area right now that clearly is enflamed.
MCINTYRE You know they told us initially that this was confined to the base, forward operating base Falcon. But as we look at this picture which is from a telephoto lens, it does appear that there are fires nearby after shrapnel or parts of those munitions hit the ground.
So it may be the case that it’s not completely contained, but our best information is actually coming from the pictures that we’re seeing live on CNN now where we’re getting a real time display of what’s going on with this fire and explosions at this ammunition supply point, which is almost directly south of the green zone in Baghdad as we look at it on a map.
BLITZER The triangle of death as it’s called, given the fierce fighting, the sectarian violence, the insurgency that has unfolded in this part of the Iraqi capital. Iraq, let’s go back to Arwa Damon, she’s in Baghdad for us. Baghdad is still a huge city, what, eight, nine million people at least before the war. I don’t know how many are left and there’s been no official census by any means, but this is a very, very major, metropolitan area.
DAMON It is, Wolf. I mean, Baghdad is essentially your definition of a metropolitan city. It was before the fall of Saddam Hussein a very heavily populated city. There are of course many people who have fled here. In fact, the Iraqi government announcing earlier today that some 300,000 people have been displaced throughout all of Iraq and al Dora does remain to be one of the more fairly populated parts of this city.
I mean, it is a very busy city despite everything that we see happening here every day. There are still cars out on the street. There are still people going to marketplaces. There are still people that are trying really desperately to get on with their lives.
I mean, even earlier today we had another insurgent attack and in that case they placed a roadside bomb underneath a civilian vehicle and the apparent target was a bakery. In fact that also happening in the neighborhood of al Dora, the very neighborhood where we’re seeing these flames and these ongoing explosions erupt from tonight. So it’s an incredibly challenging environment for everyone to live in, Wolf.
BLITZER Let me just wrap up because we’re going to continue to watch this story. Jamie McIntyre, as you see this story unfold, I know you and our colleagues at the Pentagon, elsewhere, are you getting any more information coming in from US military spokesmen about what we are seeing?
MCINTYRE No, we’re awaiting more information. Presumably, they’re pretty caught up in what’s going on, on the ground there. Just to recap, briefly. They say this was a fire that started in an ammunitions supply point at forward operating base Falcon which is just south of Baghdad.
They’re allowing the ammunition which includes tank, artillery rounds and small arms ammunition to what they call “cook off” because there’s no way to safely go in and fight the fire. They say they’ve successfully evacuated military and civilian personnel from the base and at last report the activity was confined to the base, but again, we await further update and as we can see from the live pictures, this is not over yet — Wolf.
BLITZER Unless that base was very, very big, it looks like an area that clearly is beyond what is a relatively modest forward operating base that’s called Falcon.
MCINTYRE It appears that way from this perspective. It’s hard to tell from here.
BLITZER That’s what it would seem like to me. Arwa, I want to go back to you in Baghdad. Arwa under a normal situation and God knows very little is normal in Iraq these days, under a normal situation there would be firefighters who would be dispatched.
There would be helicopters dropping water and other liquids on this. I take it that in the middle of the night it’s approaching 2:00 a.m. in Baghdad right now, there’s really no infrastructure, there’s no capability of doing anything along those lines?
DAMON Well, Wolf, you pretty much just said it right there. Very little here is normal. Now given that this was on a US military base, of course, the US military is able to contain it as long as it stays on that base. They do have firefighters on some of the bases there. Presumably they do have steps and measures that they can take to try to contain this to the base. What is troubling though is that if it spills out outside of the base what kind of infrastructure does Baghdad have to be able to deal with it? There are firefighters on the streets of Baghdad that do go out there every day to deal with the aftermath of any number of attacks that happen here. But again, moving around this capital is very difficult — Wolf.
BLITZER All right stand by Arwa. Joining us on the phone is retired US army colonel Pat Lang who’s been watching all of this together with us. I want to show our viewers Pat some of the huge explosions only moments ago that have rocked this forward operating base Falcon. Take a look at this. These are — this is video. These are the tape of what has happened at this facility. We’ll go back to the live pictures. What’s your sense of what we’re seeing, Pat?
COL. PAT LANG, US ARMY (RET.): Well, in a big world like this where a lot of ammunition is stockpiled fairly forward in fact that explosions like this are fairly commonplace, even if they — however spectacular they may look. Because if you — if the enemy gets a lucky hit in these places you get a detonation spread from one ammunition bunker to another.
You get a whole string of sympathetic explosions which become an enormous kind of a cataclysm in the end. And if you didn’t build it right to start with for some reason, then it becomes a lot easier to have that happen. I’m not sure if this is an Iraqi ammunition dump or an American one. Which is it?
BLITZER According to a statement that the military put out, multinational forces in Baghdad is reporting they suspect a fire broke out at an ammunition supply point on forward operating base Falcon. It’s a US base in the southwestern part of Baghdad.
LANG: Well, in that case I would assume that the ammunition supply plant was built correctly with enough spacing, enough hardening of the different bunkers, so that this should not happen. This would indicate a large-scale strike on the base which caused a string of sympathetic explosions from one to another. And I’ve been in the midst of explosions like this and it turns into something which seems like the end of the world at times and could easily spread into the residential part of Baghdad there.
BLITZER And that’s what everybody is trying to avoid. They call it cooking off, basically burning out these explosions that are occurring right now. What a euphemism that is, cooking off, you’ve heard that before?
LANG: Oh, yes. This means that once the temperature of the ammunition rises to a certain point it just starts to go off simultaneously and one artillery shell or rocket, or whatever it is, ignites the next one and the next one and then they blow off the top of the bunker, things fly over to the next bunker, go through the roof, it blows that one, temperatures go up and it spreads and spreads and spreads, until the whole place goes up like a tremendous kind of fourth of July thing.
BLITZER We’ll stay on top of this story Pat. Thanks very much — Colonel Pat Lang, retired US Army colonel. I want to thank Arwa Damon in Baghdad, Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon. We’re going to stay on top of this story, huge explosions rocking the southern part of the Iraqi capital. Much more on that coming up here on CNN.
Also coming up, don’t forget in our 7 p.m. eastern hour my one- on-one interview with the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. As some try to figure out if the Clinton or Bush administration is responsible for the current crisis with North Korea. I’ll ask the secretary of state whom she thinks is to blame.
Up next though, Jack Cafferty and his question of the hour, if the federal government refuses to enforce the nation’s immigration laws, should local communities be allowed to do so? Back with your e- mail right after this.