Survivors recall blast of Tanzania embassy
NEW YORK (CNN) -- With vivid descriptions of bloodshed and terror, several survivors of the August 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Tanzania recounted the blast in a federal court Tuesday. It was the first time in six weeks of testimony the jurors have heard first-hand accounts of the Tanzania attack.
Four men are standing trial, charged with conspiracy in the twin August 7, 1998, truck bombings of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. The bombings killed a total of 224 people and wounded more than 4,500 others.
Prosecutors began their Tanzania presentation, as they had with the Kenya bombing, by calling the top American diplomat on duty that fateful day.
John Lange, then the U.S. charge d'affaires in Tanzania, said he was having a meeting in his third-floor office that Friday morning, preparing for the arrival of the new ambassador.
Lange described feeling a deep rumble before an explosion rocked his office, shattering windows. He and the six other embassy workers in the room suffered only superficial injuries.
"I now understand what it's like when your parachute doesn't open and your whole life passes before your eyes," Lange said.
A series of smaller explosions that sounded like gunfire occurred after the main blast, Lange testified. He discovered later they were tires blowing and gas tanks exploding in cars parked outside the embassy.
Lange, the current U.S. ambassador to Botswana, instinctively sought to call the State Department operations center in Washington and managed to find a working telephone on the embassy grounds.
"There's been a huge explosion, a lot of damage to the building. You won't be hearing from me for a while," Lange recalled telling officials.
Justina Mdobilu, an embassy translator, was among the staffers meeting with Lange when the blast occurred.
"I suddenly saw what was like a flash of lightning for a split second and what sounded like a thunderstorm went on for 15 seconds," Mdobilu said. Pieces of glass were caught in her braided hair, she said, and her arms were cut as she shielded her face from flying glass.
"I thought I was dreaming," Mdobilu said. "When I looked around me, people were bleeding."
Mdobilu, then eight months pregnant, eventually climbed over cement blocks to get out outside and used a ladder to scale an embassy wall to safety.
Elizabeth Slater, a State Department information officer, began work at the embassy two days before the bombing. She wept on the stand recalling the blast and its aftermath.
"It went pitch black." Slater said, describing an oily, gritty feel to the air when a wall collapsed on her and a colleague. After rubble and a bookcase was pulled off her, Slater made her way out.
"Coming down the stairwell, there were all kinds of body parts," Slater said. She told of finding a disoriented colleague who wouldn't leave without her shoes, so Slater gave the woman her own pair. After she made it outside, Slater said, she saw a security guard near the front post, close to where the bomb-laden truck detonated.
"He didn't have any skin left," she said. "I just wished he would hurry up and die."
Five embassy security guards were among the 11 people, all Tanzanians, killed in the explosion, which injured another 85 people.
Defendant Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, a 27-year-old Tanzanian, is the only trial defendant accused of a direct role in the Tanzania bombing. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
Another defendant, Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-'Owhali, 24, a Saudi, could face capital punishment if convicted of a role in the Kenya bombing.
Mohamed Sadeek Odeh, 36,a Jordanian, is also accused of participating in the Kenya bombing plot.
The trial's fourth defendant, naturalized American Wadih el Hage, 40, is accused of participating in the conspiracy behind the attacks, but not of taking a direct role in the bombings.
The truck used to carry the Tanzania bomb was a 1987 Nissan Atlas, according to the testimony of FBI special agent Leo West, who led the Dar es Salaam evidence recovery team.
West said debris was thrown as far as 600 yards from the bomb crater on the embassy's eastern wall. He stood in front of the jury with a 6-foot-long portion of the embassy's metal gate that was found on a neighboring building's roof.
Among charred and twisted vehicle parts laid before the jury was a section of the truck's right front frame rail. West said that part bore the Nissan's vehicle identification number.
Firsthand accounts of the Tanzania bombing will continue Wednesday and Thursday.
Earlier Tuesday, prosecutors completed a presentation of Kenya embassy bombing evidence that included 16 FBI agents testifying over two days.
FBI fingerprint specialist Michael Hallars told the court he had found fingerprints from al-Owhali and Odeh among recovered evidence.
Odeh's right thumb print was on a door knob at the Nairobi's Hilltop hotel, Hallars testified. The hotel is where prosecutors say the Kenya bombers met in the days leading up to the bombing. Odeh's fingerprint came off the door to the room used by Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, the alleged Kenya cell leader. In his-post arrest statements, Odeh admitted being in the company of Abdullah and other cell members but denied a role in the bombing.
Al-'Owhali's right thumb print was obtained off an airline ticket found in a briefcase belonging to Fazul Abdullah Mohamed, Hallars testified. Fazul, as he is known, the alleged ground leader of the Kenya attack, is one of 13 fugitives in the case.
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