Five Patrick Air Force Base airman were killed in terrorist bombing 25 years ago
On the evening of June 25, 1996, Air Force Staff Sgt. William Schooley had just finished smoking a cigarette on the balcony of the military barracks where he was temporarily stationed in Saudi Arabia.
Schooley was among 2,000 American service members stationed at King Abdulaziz Air Base to enforce a "no-fly zone" against Saddam Hussein's forces in southern Iraq.
Just moments after stepping off the balcony and into his bedroom an explosion ripped through the area shattering the sliding glass door Schooley had just shut and sending shards of glass everywhere.
Had he lingered just moments longer smoking, Schooley believes he would have died. "I would have been cut to ribbons by the glass," he said.
Others weren't so lucky. Nineteen airman — including five from Patrick Air Force Base — were killed and another 500 people were wounded that evening at the Khobar Towers complex at the base.
It was the deadliest attack on American troops since a truck bomb killed more than 300 people, including 241 U.S. service members in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983.
As Schooley was enjoying his cigarette, a man was parking a modified tanker truck just outside the fence surrounding the complex. Two men jumped out of the truck and into a waiting car and sped away.
A sentry atop the building closest to the where the truck parked recognized it as a threat and immediately alerted others to begin evacuating the building.
But as the troops were beginning to pile down the stairs of the eight-story building the truck bomb was detonated and the blast shattered the front wall. Glass shards flew through the air with such force they were embedded in the building's interior wall. The blast left a crater 85 feet wide and 35 feet deep and blew out windows up to two miles away.
Schooley was not in the building that sustained the worst damage. Like others who weren't severely injured, he scrambled outside to begin rendering aid to the wounded.
Though, it was night and the bomb knocked out power, the blast set palm trees on fire, casting an eerie light over the area.
He described a "trail of wounded" coming out of Building 131, the one that suffered the worst damage. Everywhere was rubble, broken glass and pools of blood.
The first person he encountered had one arm nearly amputated and was bleeding badly. Schooley, who was a munitions expert, tried to perform what first aid he could, but soon realized the man was already dead.
Two days later, Schooley was back at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.
Back stateside, Schooley struggled for years with feelings that he should have done more to help save lives that night.
"Yeah, that was something I kind of wrestled with for years," he said "You like to think 'you're the guy', right? You know how to do stuff. And it took me a couple years to actually figure out there was nothing I could have done. It's just being naïve, right. You're supposed to be able to fix everything."
Schooley was medically retired from the Air Force in 1999 and said that while the physically wounded were treated, other survivors like himself had little help dealing with the trauma of the bombing at a time when post-traumatic stress disorder was not well understood.
"Most guys came back with little support," he said. "These guys never had any closure on what happened."
He went on to found the Khobar Towers Bombing Survivors Association to help others still dealing with the aftermath of the bombing.
Each June 25, he and other survivors lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
Schooley said the wreath laying is an opportunity for survivors to get some closure to the tragedy that they didn't get when they returned to their home bases.
"I think during the wreath laying these guys, it gives them a ceremony in life to say 'This is real. It's over. It's okay.' And that's made a huge difference."
Shyrl Johnson was left a widow to raise three young boys when her husband, Staff Sgt. Kevin Johnson was killed in the bombing. The youngest was just 10 weeks old at the time.
Johnson said there were many times over the years she struggled to be both mother and father to her sons. "I would find myself thinking 'I wish Kevin was here to talk to them about that."
Her middle son, Kevin, who was just five at the time of the bombing, took his father's death particularly hard, Johnson said. "It’s been a struggle for him," Shyrl Johnson said "He wishes his father was still here.
Kevin, who is a chef, is about to open Livette's Cajun Bistro in Melbourne honoring his mother by using her middle name for the restaurant.
But the legal name of the company behind the restaurant is For My Dad LLC.
"He always wants to make sure that everything he does honors his father," Johnson said.
Johnson recently retired from teaching and spends some time sitting on one of two rocking chairs on her porch.
"Kevin and I used to always say that when we retired, we would have two rocking chairs on the porch," Johnson explains. "And so I did build my house that has a wraparound porch, because that's what we wanted. ... So that's why we have these two rocking chairs on my porch, one for myself and one for Kevin."
Thomas Friers, a retired Air Force colonel, was the commander of the 1st Rescue Group at Patrick, the organization that Johnson and the four other Patrick men killed were members of.
Twenty-five years later, the pain of his troops being killed and wounded is still with him. "I think about those guys every day," he said.
He visited the families of those killed in the days after the bombing. "It is one of the harder things you do as a commander, but it is the right thing to do," he said.
Intelligence officials concluded the members of Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia conducted the attack. In 2001, federal prosecutors filed indictments against 14 men believed to be involved in the attack. None have ever faced justice in the United States. Saudi officials said that they had detained 11 of the 13 Saudi suspects named in the indictment but would not extradite them to the United States. Saudi officials have never disclosed how it dealt with those suspects.
Four years after the tragedy, Air Force officials unveiled a monument at Patrick to the five local airman killed at Khobar Towers.
Friday afternoon, Johnson, Friers and others with connections to Khobar Towers will gather at the monument to remember those men and the others killed and wounded on June 25, 1996.
"I wish it never happened," Johnson said "But here we are 25 years later, and we still remember. And we still want to pay homage to those who passed away at Khobar Towers in 1996."
Nineteen airman, including five from Patrick Air Force Base, were killed at Khobar Towers in 1996. They are:
- Capt. Christopher Adams, Patrick AFB
- Capt. Leland "Timothy" Haun, Patrick AFB
- Master Sgt. Michael Heiser, Patrick AFB
- Staff Sgt. Kevin Johnson, Patrick AFB
- Airman 1st Class Justin Wood, Patrick AFB
- Tech. Sgt. Daniel Cafourek, Eglin AFB
- Sgt. Millard Dee Campbell, Eglin AFB
- Senior Airman Earl Cartrette Jr., Eglin AFB
- Tech. Sgt. Patrick Fennig, Eglin AFB
- Master Sgt. Kendall Kitson Jr., Eglin AFB
- Airman 1st Class Brent Marthaler, Eglin AFB
- Airman 1st Class Brian McVeigh, Eglin AFB
- Airmen 1st Class Peter Morgera, Eglin AFB
- Tech. Sgt. Thanh Gus Nguyen, Eglin AFB
- Airman 1st Class Joseph Rimkus
- Senior Airman Jeremy Taylor, Eglin AFB
- Airman 1st Class Joshua Woody, Eglin AFB
- Staff Sgt. Ronald King, Offutt AFB
- Airman 1st Class Christopher Lester, Wright-Patterson AFB
A 25+ year veteran of FLORIDA TODAY, John McCarthy currently oversees the space team and special projects. Support quality local journalism by subscribing to FLORIDA TODAY. You can contact McCarthy at 321-752-5018 or firstname.lastname@example.org.