Air Force says crew members are not to blame for Afghan deaths in evacuation: NPR

Taliban fighters stand guard outside Hamid Karzai International Airport after the US withdrawal in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 31, 2021.

Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi/AP


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Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi/AP


Taliban fighters stand guard outside Hamid Karzai International Airport after the US withdrawal in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 31, 2021.

Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi/AP

WASHINGTON — The Air Force has concluded that Air Force crew members acted appropriately and are not to blame for some tragic deaths during the chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan last year when desperate Afghans clung to a military plane as it took off and crashed to their deaths stuck in the wheels.

Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said in a statement Monday that investigations into the deaths showed that the crew “used common sense in their decision to take to the skies as quickly as possible when faced with an unprecedented and rapidly deteriorating security situation”.

Video and other reports from that day vividly show Afghans harassing the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, panicking to get out of the country as the Taliban took control and US forces withdrew. The C-17 transport plane was surrounded when it landed on the tarmac, and military officials have said the crew feared the plane would be overwhelmed, so they decided to take off.

As the plane took off, the cell phone video captured two small dots falling from the plane. It later became clear that the dots were Afghans who had tried to hide in the wheel arch. As the wheels folded into the plane’s body, the stowaways faced the choice of being crushed or letting go and falling to the ground.

Human remains were found in the wheel arch when the plane landed at al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

“This was a tragic event and our hearts go out to the families of the deceased,” Stefanek said. She said the Air Force Special Investigation Office has investigated the incident and handed over the site of the incident to Qatari authorities, who declined to investigate further.

“The flight crew and quick thinking of the flight crew ensured the safety of the crew and their aircraft,” Stefanek said. “After seeking appropriate care and services to cope with any trauma from this unprecedented experience, the crew returned to flight status.”

It is still unclear how many people have died. Videos show the two dots falling from the plane several seconds apart. But two bodies landed on the same roof at the same time, suggesting they fell together, so the other figure falling in the videos could be at least one other person.

Afghans later identified one of those who fell on the roof as Fida Mohammad, a 24-year-old dentist. And local media said the second body was identified as a young man named Safiullah Hotak. At least one other person died on the tarmac, crushed under the wheels of the C-17.

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