"Bombed in Pleiku"

By Valerie Schumacher

On Monday, February 13, 1995, there was an explosion in downtown Pleiku that took out a couple buildings, killed and wounded many people, devastated my hotel (the Yaly), and missed including me and my group of 5 others in the destruction by a mere 5-10 minutes.

My group arrived in Pleiku early on the afternoon of the 13th and checked into the Yaly Hotel in the center of town. Our group leader, Tom, gave us an hour of recuperation from the road then told us to meet up for a walk to the marketplace. I sat in my room and jotted a few postcards, feeling like I just wanted to hang out for the afternoon and beg off from the walk to the marketplace. Changed my mind at the last minute. Slipped on a pair of rubber flip-flops and headed out with the others.

We sauntered down the street, and I was armed with two cameras, as usual. Went two blocks and hung a right for the marketplace. Tom was busy haggling with an old woman over the price of grapes when an enormous explosion occurred. The sound and force of it went through my entire body, and I ducked instinctively, certainly not because I had any prior experience.

In the milliseconds after the explosion, there was absolute silence; everyone seemed frozen for a moment in shock and disbelief-- the quietest moment I've ever experienced, immediately following the loudest moment I've ever experienced.

I spun and looked to see where the blast had come from; and I remember saying to Tom "I think our hotel just blew up." I was still reeling as a red mushroom cloud was spreading two blocks away, right where our hotel stood.

With two fully loaded cameras on my person, I was off like a shot toward the blast. I never knew I could run so fast, never mind do it in flip-flops.

I outran Tom, who is 36 and in excellent condition, dodging motorbikes, bicycles, and other running, frantic people. I was the first Westerner on the scene, there before the firetrucks, police cars and ambulances (such as they are in the Central Highlands). I stopped briefly in my dead run for shots of the running crowd and the plume of rust-colored smoke. It was absolute chaos, the likes of which I've never seen and never hope to again.

As I neared the blast site, there was rubble everywhere: shattered glass on the pavement, a twisted metal roof, downed electrical wires snaking all over the street, toppled telephone poles, a burning tree, houses with the fronts blown out. A mob of craning necks.

I didn't know what to think. I'm not sure I was even thinking at all. My mouth had gone dry as chalk, and my heart pounded like a stampede. I just lifted the camera to my eye and shot.

I reached Ground Zero, a crater in the street the size of one of the B-52 bomb craters I'd recently seen at the Cu Chi tunnels. Dumbfounded, I scrabbled my way through the ring of people at its edge and squatted at its gaping mouth, firing away.

There was a single loud cry; and suddenly, the crowd scattered as though someone had blown crumbs off a table. I didn't understand the Vietnamese scream, but I knew to run like hell like everyone else. I was in a complete panic, no idea what was going on or why everyone ran or what was about to happen. I sliced my foot open on some debris in my mad scramble and dove behind a large pile of sand. It didn't seem far enough away, and I couldn't seem to run fast enough or get my body low enough.

Nothing happened.

The crowd reappeared from behind cover with sheepish looks at one another. I staggered for a moment and clutched at my racing heart. A boy laughed at me and said, "Where you from?"

"America," I replied. "What the hell just happened? What did this?"

No one understood me, and I couldn't understand them. I edged back to the crater; I still had film left. Like the cat who came back, forgetting that curiosity killed that cat.

People were wandering about like zombies, much the same as I probably looked. My eyes felt like they would burst from my head. No one else from my group was anywhere to be seen. I was the sole Westerner in a sea of Vietnamese.

Suddenly our guide, Viet, materialized at my elbow. He was gasping and panic-stricken. He wouldn't let go of me. "I've been so worried. After the explosion you all ran off. I thought you were running away from the blast, but instead you were running toward it! Where are the others? You must get back to the hotel."

Viet told me someone said a transformer had blown and caused the explosion. No f*cking way, I thought. I'd seen the transformer; I'd jumped over it on my way to the crater. Besides, that impact was no mere transformer. It sounded like a bomb. Or what I thought a bomb would sound like. Words cannot possibly convey the immensity of the sound or the force. Those who've experienced it know what I'm talking about. I never figured I'd be experiencing it.

It was then that I realized my hotel was still standing; and suddenly, it looked a lot like home. My film was exhausted, and I realized I was made of rubber. We dodged through the crowd and having Viet near made me realize how close to losing it I really was.

The sight of the van we had ridden in to Pleiku stopped us in our tracks. The front windshield was a spider web of silvery cracks, the side windows blown in, and the roof blown up like an overfilled balloon. I looked for our driver and prayed he was okay as I ran for the front of the hotel, mindless of all the glass I crunched through, cutting my foot again. I felt nothing. I only knew I was hurt because the blood made my rubber flip-flop slippery.

There was no front door. I walked through a gaping hole, dangling my room key to display that I belonged there. No one in the lobby paid me any mind; they were too dazed.

The lobby was a crystalline, glittering sea; and I stumbled up three flights of glass-strewn stairs to my room. The lock to my door was lying in the hallway, and the wooden door was accordioned, as was every door in the place. I forced it open with my shoulder and stood for a moment in shock. The windows were gone. Knives of glass covered my bed, had cut my mosquito netting to ribbons. Twisted metal caught at the torn curtains like grabbing fingers.

For a long moment I stood stunned as it dawned on me what a close call I'd had; we'd all had. People must have died, I thought, the streets are too crowded for there not to be any dead. I'd walked that road not 10 minutes before it became a giant crater. I'd been lying on my belly on that glass- covered bed a half hour before, musing about how to fill out the postcards that were still strewn about.

I touched the M-60 bullet I wear round my neck, retrieved intact from Khe Sanh by one of its veterans and given to me. He'd mailed it to me before my trip after carefully drilling and polishing it for me, one of the strangest and yet most special gifts I've ever gotten. "Lucky bullet," he'd said. "Wear it, and it will keep you safe."

I thought of those words as the immensity of what had just occurred hit home.

A moment later, I was rewinding the film in my cameras, scrambling for more rolls. It was the only thing I could think of to do. Slammed into Schuyler in the hallway. Schuyler was the only Vietnam vet on our trip, an ex-Marine who'd been in Pleiku in 1968. "It's only fitting that I get bombed upon my return," he said to me later in a weak attempt at humor, "since the last time I was bombed was here, 27 years ago."

Together we ran into the dining room, or what was left of the dining room. Schuyler is a professional photographer, but neither of us were photojournal- ists. We weren't about to pass up the opportunity. I'd thrown our spent rolls of film into a bag in my suitcase, which turned out to be fortuitous a moment later. A pair of irate Vietnamese men strode into the hotel dining room and yelled at us shrilly, snatching at our cameras.

I was scared, but I was also charged up, my mind and body in overdrive. I would not let them seize my cameras, glad to see Schuyler wasn't giving in either. I scowled back at the men and yanked my cameras away from them, screaming at them in English in response to their frenzied Vietnamese.

Our guide Viet entered the room just then, gesturing wildly at the men when he saw we were in trouble. Schuyler and I made a quick exit while the men were preoccupied with someone they could understand.

Viet entered my room a few minutes later, informing us that those men had been the Pleiku Security Police, and we were to turn over all the film in our cameras. We didn't volunteer that we'd already emptied our cameras once and were on round two.

I cooperatively rewound my two cameras and handed the film over to Viet, no more than three shots on each roll. The Security Police told him no more pictures or our cameras would indeed be confiscated.

Tom burst into the room, his camera already taken by the same men. He took one look at me and put his arms around me for a long minute, crushing my head to his chest. I felt deflated, my one outlet in all the chaos taken away.

We went out to the open air balcony overlooking the mob scene of sirens and milling people, destruction all around, bodies being carried away. Seeing that, I felt as though someone had punched me in the stomach.

I sank down onto the staircase, and Schuyler and Tom saw my bloodied foot. They got out a medical bag and washed it and wrapped it for me, and I let them. I was perfectly capable of doing it myself, I thought, but they seemed to need to be doing something.

Suddenly, I just wanted to be taken care of. The cuts were not that bad, but they kept us occupied in our helplessness, confined by the police to our devastated hotel. Another Vietnamese man approached us there and stood surveying the scene outside. "You are going to write about this in your country?" he asked.

What a strange question, I thought. I looked at him quizzically, 'You bet I'm going to write about it' on the tip of my tongue. Tom hurriedly shook his head and said, "No, we are only tourists."

The man watched us for a while. "You know that was an old American bomb," he said. "They discovered it while digging a new road this morning."

"I know it was a bomb," Schuyler said. "But why the hell were they transporting it through the middle of town?"

The man shook his head sadly and said, "Twenty-six people they say are dead. Some children. More than forty wounded."

I stared at him then stared back out at the scene. Pain, disbelief, and horror washed over me. I realized then that I'd been completely numb until that moment. The tears that wouldn't come earlier welled in my eyes. But then they stopped, frozen on the edges of my lashes. I wanted them, waited for them, but something stopped them.

How could I not cry? How could I not show some feeling for those people down below? I felt a vague anger at myself; but more than that, I felt overwhelmed by it all. I turned and went into my room.

Inside was a Vietnamese maid, sweeping the glass. Such incredible efficiency, I thought. She saw me limp, looked at my bandaged foot, and a look of such compassion came over her face. She leaned her broom against the wall and took me in her arms. Her people are out there bleeding and dying, I thought, and she is comforting me. I felt worthless, desolate. I clung to her for a moment, our arms conveying to one another what words could not.

An American bomb, I kept thinking. And we Americans unscathed. Unfathomable. Incredible irony. We hadn't been in Pleiku much more than an hour when the center of town got blasted to hell.

The story that found its way around was that the truck the bomb was being transported in caught fire in the market. Where we were buying grapes. The driver drove it away from the crowd in a panic to a less populated street. The men in the back of the truck, terrified, pushed the bomb off the back of the burning truck and it detonated on the street.

This is the story the witnesses told. The number of dead quoted to us rose and fell over the long hours as we stood watching on the darkening balcony. No matter how many died, it was still a terrible tragedy.

My hands shook as I drew on a cigarette, standing watch; but I still could not cry. I wondered how Schuyler was, how this incredible return to Pleiku had affected him. He said he was fine. "You don't look okay," he later told me. "Your eyes are strange. You're talking strangely, and you are moving strangely. Like you're on another level. Dazed and yet supercharged."

"What are you talking about?" I argued. "I think I've kept it together really well."

But when I thought about it, I realized I'd been like a madwoman, crouching at the edge of that crater, spinning like a top, dashing senselessly over glass and debris. The last thing on my mind had been safety. I realized how insane it all was, how crazed I had been.

The hotel manager came in and informed us that the police were holding our passports, and we could not leave Pleiku until given authority (which turned out to be two days later). We were moved to less damaged quarters at the other end of the hotel, furthest from the blast. Tom told us it was best to keep a low profile and Viet would meet with officials and concentrate on getting us out of town as soon as possible. We were given orders not to even leave the Yaly premises. The hotel manager, Nguyen, looked distraught and kept telling us how sorry he was, repeating over and over, "They do not have the right." Tom commented on what a powerful statement that was in this Communist society. I agreed on both counts.

I wanted out of Pleiku bad. Instead, I got a new room and a candle to see by. Tom and Viet told us not to even write anything down about what had happened, but I pulled my journal out when I was alone anyway and wrote like a fiend. It was incomprehensible to me to keep it all inside.

A roach, probably disturbed from its nest by the explosion, scuttled across my bed as I wrote. Any other time, I would have been bouncing off the walls at the sight. This time I just gave it a flick with my fingernail and sent it catapulting off a wall. What the hell was a roach?

I realized I had unwittingly chosen the bed furthest from the window. It had just made sense. Finally, when my hand had cramped from all the writing, I blew out my candle and lay staring at the ceiling in the darkness. I'm not a religious person. Hell, I believe more in the power of my lucky bullet than in any god. But I said a prayer for the people of Pleiku that night.

Only one lousy tear stung my eye. I punched my pillow in frustration, wondering why the hell I couldn't cry.

Official story released by the Pleiku police: 8 people dead, 26 wounded. Eighty percent of the Yaly Hotel damaged. Estimated range of damage from the site of the crater--400 meters. All film of the destruction confiscated.

Official cause of explosion released to the press: a bag of gunpowder ignited by a carelessly disposed cigarette.

At least that's the story in the Vietnam news.

My photographs seem to tell a different story. So does my memory.

Copyright 1995 By Valerie Schumacher, All Rights Reserved