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Lives Shattered in Seconds One Fall Morning

Published on 19th October 2003

A ceremony Thursday at Camp Lejeune will honor victims of the Beirut barracks bombing, 20 years later. This is the story of some who lived through it -- and some who didn't.

By PETER SMOLOWITZ and SCOTT DODD, STAFF WRITERS

After five months of explosions and gunfire, the home to more than 1,000 Marines in Beirut was unusually quiet that Sunday morning in October.

Bacon fried in the hulking four-story barracks as cooks prepared a rare hot breakfast. Sunlight streamed through bullet holes in the door of one officer's quarters.

For the first time in two weeks, chaplain Danny Wheeler spent the night in his own room instead of the basement, where Marines huddled to survive heavy shelling. 

Lance Cpl. Mike Toma, weary from guard duty, slept late on his cot at the edge of the barracks, next to his best friend.

Thousands of miles away, five letters from Lance Cpl. Johnny Copeland were waiting in a post office for his parents in Burlington, N.C. Copeland told them he was scared and frustrated by the constant shellings and the search for car bombs. 

"Mom and Dad," he wrote, "sometimes I think I'm going to lose it."

At the Marines' base in Jacksonville, N.C., Patty Gerlach, wife of the battalion commander, had just put her two children to bed after a party for the officers' wives. They had been celebrating their husbands' expected return in about a month.

At that moment in Beirut on Oct. 23, 1983, no one worried about the familiar-looking yellow Mercedes truck circling the parking lot of the Marine base. The troops didn't know the terrorist group Hezbollah had ambushed the real water-delivery truck and replaced it with their own.

In the back, it carried what the FBI would later call the largest non-nuclear explosive device ever created. The bomb would bury Wheeler, Toma, Copeland and hundreds of others under concrete and twisted steel, leaving many struggling to breathe and praying to live.

---

The 24th Marine Amphibious Unit out of Camp Lejeune landed in Beirut in May 1983. Their mission: Provide stability in a country wracked by civil war. 

It proved futile. Within weeks, some Marines say they had seen and heard so many clashes they could pick out which factions were fighting and the weapons being fired by the sound and color of the flashes.

Wheeler, a Vietnam vet, had left the military in 1972 and later joined the Wisconsin National Guard. He had always admired his pastor, so after college, he attended seminary. 

In 1982, he saw news of Marines deploying to Beirut. He wondered whether he should go and prayed for guidance. A week later, he was asked to go on active duty.

As chaplain, Wheeler visited bunker after bunker, consoling Marines furious with their limited rules of engagement, designed to portray them as neutral peacekeepers.

Marines carried cards printed with the 10 rules. No. 1 forbade them from keeping a round in the chamber of their weapons, and they could rarely shoot back. Even after their buddies died in crossfire. Or when they saw women and children killed.

By October, attendance at church services had doubled. One of Wheeler's best friends on the base asked to be baptized, saying he had always told his wife he would know when to find religion. 

As Wheeler recited John 3:16 -- For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten son  -- he heard artillery exploding in the background.

Copeland had been promoted from private first class to lance corporal after arriving in Beirut. The 19-year-old proudly asked his parents to start putting the new rank on his letters and wanted his mom to find some lance corporal stripes

As the weeks wore on, his letters, written from the basement shelter as the Marines were under fire, changed from asking for chocolate chip cookies to describing his growing fears. He longed to go home to hunt and fish with his father and brother.

"They've got us searching for car bombs," he wrote to his parents Oct. 3. "I don't like that at all."

Toma, a 20-year-old from Pittsburgh who joined the Marines right out of high school, guarded convoys and supply trucks on trips through Beirut. He remembers war-weary residents initially smiling and waving to the Marines. 

Smiles soon turned to jeers. Then hurled tomatoes. Then sniper fire.

On Oct. 19, Toma raced through empty streets, escorting a 5-ton chow truck and Col. Tim Geraghty -- who had removed his eagle insignias so snipers wouldn't know his rank. 

A bomb planted in a white Mercedes exploded next to the truck, in front of Toma's armed jeep. He slammed on the brakes as the street filled with dark smoke. The force from the blast rammed another jeep into a telephone pole.

The Marines jumped out and formed a defensive ring, their backs to one another. With gunfire all around, Toma couldn't tell whether someone was aiming for them. Several tense minutes passed until backup arrived. 

Everyone made it, shaken but OK.

It was another example of what worried Geraghty and the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Larry Gerlach, prompting Geraghty to warn their superiors. The Marines -- outmanned and outgunned by forces fighting to topple the American-backed government -- were now the targets.

Back home, where the officers' families had all ordered the new cable network CNN, Patty Gerlach's phone often rang after wives saw initial reports of injured Marines. Gerlach would call the regiment's executive officer, trying to find out who was hurt.

On Oct. 22, the officers' wives met for coffee. They talked about missing the smell of their husbands on clothes and pillows. Some had just gotten what they hoped would be their last letters from Beirut before they saw their husbands again.

---

At dawn in Beirut on Oct. 23, Sgt. Steve Russell supervised guards at the main entrance to the barracks as most Marines slept.

The yellow truck circled the parking lot at 6:22 a.m. and crashed through the barbed wire.

The guards struggled to get off a shot. Russell told others and later testified that he heard the noise, turned and ran as the truck gunned for his guard shack. It smashed through a sandbag barrier and rammed into the lobby. Russell ran through the building atrium and out the other side.

"Hit the deck!" he screamed as he ran. "Hit the deck!"

The driver smiled. Flames leapt from the truck.

The explosion 100 yards away ripped the steel door from Maj. Bob Jordan's quarters. He shot up in bed as the windows circling his 20-foot-high room shattered.

Outside, the leaves from a hedgerow had been blown off. Jordan recalls seeing pieces of debris sticking out of palm trees 30 feet in the air.

He walked through smoke and dust. The smell of burnt flesh mixed with the stench of propane and powder from the explosives.

Jordan saw the top of a tower normally obscured by the barracks -- known as the Battalion Landing Team headquarters -- where most Marines slept.

"Sir," Jordan remembers his staff sergeant saying, "the BLT is gone."

Jordan was struck by the eerie silence; other Marines heard their trapped comrades moaning.

Mike Toma struggled into consciousness, lying on a slab of concrete. Rubble had collapsed on him and his best friend.

Toma could barely breathe. Dust filled his collapsed lung. He felt pain in his hip, where he later learned a piece of bone had chipped off. He couldn't hear anything but ringing. One of his eardrums had ruptured.

He passed out several times. When he was awake, he wasn't strong enough to move. He tried to shout, "Billy!" to his friend lying next to him, but Toma's voice was a hoarse croak.

Outside, Marines and sailors who had been blown from their beds carried bodies to a makeshift triage station more than 200 yards away. Some of the wounded died on their rescuers' shoulders. A Navy dentist gave some of the dying a shot of novocaine so they could go peacefully.

A Jewish chaplain held the hands of wounded Marines and prayed. He remembers tearing off his undershirt for bandages and using his yarmulke to wipe blood from a Marine's face. 

When another chaplain saw the rabbi without his skullcap, he cut a piece of cloth from his camouflage hat to cover the rabbi's head.

---

Rescuers remember lifting concrete chunks larger than coffee tables, searching for bodies. One of the dead was Johnny Copeland, who had sent his last letters home just days before.

Copeland might have risen at dawn to work out, as he usually did. His friends aren't sure. His parents received his last five letters the day after the bombing, not yet knowing his fate.

At Camp Lejeune the morning of the bombing, a 6:30 a.m. call woke Patty Gerlach, the battalion commander's wife.

"Turn on the TV," Gerlach remembers hearing from another Marine wife. "Has someone else been killed?" Gerlach asked.

"It's worse than that."

Gerlach put on CNN. Her scream woke the children.

In Beirut, chaplain Danny Wheeler woke to dust settling on his lips. He couldn't move, trapped by a collapsed wall.

His arms were free, his legs pinned in a fetal position. He couldn't sit up all the way. He cut his head on support rods jutting from a cinder block. Blood dripped into his ear.

"God help me!" Wheeler remembers screaming. "Get me out of here!"

As the hours stretched, he sang "Amazing Grace," trying to stay calm. He waited for rescuers, afraid of closing his eyes and never opening them again.

"I'm Danny G. Wheeler," he shouted, "and I'm alive! I'm not going to die!"

His voice grew hoarse. He pictured himself as one of the characters in the Louis L'Amour westerns he had been reading. They always lived.

But at the bottom of a pile of debris, he could barely breathe.

"God," Wheeler whispered, "either kill me now or let me live."

---

Mike Toma saw a thin shaft of light through the concrete chunks and twisted steel. He couldn't hear with his shattered eardrum, but he felt dust and dirt falling on his face. He knew someone was digging to rescue him.

Toma was one of the first Marines found alive.

When they pulled him out, he couldn't understand why he could see bright, blue sky instead of the barracks that normally towered above him. Someone had to explain days later that it wasn't just Toma and his bunkmates who had been hit.

A truck bomb had flattened the entire four-story barracks.

Toma's rescuers also pulled out his bunkmates, Lance Cpl. Jeff Nashton and Toma's best friend, Lance Cpl. Billy Sanpedro.

They were flown to hospitals in Europe. Billy died on the way.

About 80 Marines were found alive in the rubble. The death toll eventually reached 241 Marines, soldiers and sailors.

One survivor who had been sleeping on the third floor recalls crawling over friends' torn limbs, tunneling through the broken concrete and steel to get out. 

When he broke into the sunlight, he was only 3 feet above ground.

About four hours after freeing Toma, rescuers had nearly lost hope of finding anyone else alive, the Marines' Jewish chaplain said. Then another chaplain spotted a purple stole, which he recognized as the religious scarf worn by Danny Wheeler.

"Is anybody down there?" the chaplain yelled.

With his voice lost from singing and shouting, Wheeler tried signaling to his rescuers. They heard him tap a box that had held prepared meals. As his rescuers dug, chunks of concrete caved in, crushing him more.

A captain stretched to grab Wheeler's hand. The chaplain's legs were still pinned.

"Just pull," Wheeler gasped. "Pull me out."

Rescuers carried him away on a stretcher, using his purple stole as a pillow.

---

The Marines digging through the rubble found birthday cards and a child's photograph -- but no more survivors.

Patty Gerlach, the battalion commander's wife, slept little Sunday and Monday nights at her home outside Camp Lejeune. She worried each passing car would be an olive-colored sedan. 

She was haunted by fears of military officers knocking on her door, telling her she was now a widow.

Three days after the bombing, Gerlach still didn't know her husband Larry's fate. A general arranged to meet with her and other wives to share the latest news.

Gerlach was on the phone with Larry's brother when the general arrived at her home. The commander asked who she was talking to. When she started to hang up, he ordered her to wait.

The women huddled around.

"Larry is alive," the general said. "Now go tell his brother."

---

On his way to Beirut after the bombing, Marine Commandant Gen. P.X. Kelley stopped in Germany. Caskets stacked 12-by-12 were being loaded onto a C-141 plane bound for the states.

Kelley visited the hospital bedside of Lance Cpl. Jeff Nashton, who had been dragged from the rubble alongside Mike Toma.

Tubes filled Nashton's body. Dust had temporarily blinded him. He couldn't believe the commandant had come to see him, Kelley says, so Nashton leaned forward to feel the four stars on Kelley's shoulder.

Nashton motioned that he wanted to write something. The nurse handed him a pencil and the clipboard chart listing his temperature and blood pressure.

Nashton scribbled, "Semper fi." The Marine motto means "always faithful."

Kelley mounted his stars and gave them to Nashton weeks later in a Maryland hospital. "He deserved them as much as I did," Kelley told The Observer.

Patty Gerlach sat long hours at her husband's bedside once he returned to the United States. Initially, Lt. Col. Gerlach had spent several days in a coma. 

Doctors didn't know whether he would live. Later, they doubted he would walk or shake hands.

As he spent months recuperating in hospitals, Gerlach's injuries were so severe and his mind so scrambled that he had no idea what had happened. Occasionally, he asked his wife confused questions: Who is paying for this apartment? Where are my men?

In December, as his unit began returning to Camp Lejeune and the effects of his concussion faded, Patty Gerlach knew she had to tell him. She let him watch the news in his hospital room. Slowly, she explained the tragedy.

What happened to my sergeant major?

Dead.

My weapons company commander?

Dead.

She stood beside his bed. Tears filled his eyes.

It's a long list, she said.

PUBLISHED BY: THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

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