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The Embassy Beirut Bombing — A Consular Officer’s Perspective

The suicide bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, Lebanon on April 18, 1983 was the deadliest attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission up to that point. The blast killed sixty-three people, seventeen of whom were Americans. The attack is thought of as the beginning of anti-U.S. attacks from Islamist groups. This attack, along with the Marine Corps barracks bombing that same year, prompted a review of security measures at the Department of State and led to the creation of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the Diplomatic Security Service. Diane Dillard was a consular officer in Beirut at the time of the bombing. Here she recounts the troubles she encountered directly after the bombing and the troubles her office encountered in the days following the bombing. You can also see Ambassador Robert Dillon’s account here. Read about other Foreign Service officers who died in the line of duty.

“They were all covered by a fine, gray dust”

DILLARD:  I was in the house, and I…was heating some soup, and what I thought was a tremendous clap of thunder occurred. It really hurt my ears, and then the windows fell in; so I knew that it wasn’t thunder. I went to the phone to call my family, because I knew whatever it was, they were going to hear about it, you know. I always called them when things happened. The phone was dead. I went next door, across the hall, to ask my neighbor if she had any idea what had happened…. Just then, the DCM’s wife came down the stairs and said it was the embassy, and that she was going there. My neighbor said, “It is the embassy.” We could see the back of the embassy from her apartment, and it looked fine. There was smoke coming up from the top, but it really looked fine. I went down, and people had started coming out the back of the embassy, and the ambassador came out.

So I got some pencils and paper…and he [Bob Pugh] took charge…. He’s a decisive person, which is exactly what you need in that kind of situation. So the first task that I was given was to try to locate everyone, to find out the whereabouts of everyone, and that’s what I did, and tried to check out rumors. You can imagine what it was. The explosion happened at 1:06, right after lunch.

We heard that they were going to take some wounded to the old French embassy on the east side, which had been blown up some time earlier in this continuing war, so I got a doctor and a jeep and two other people. Lisa was one of them. It took us a long time to work our way through the traffic. Everybody was coming to see our explosion; so we had to fight our way through.

We got out there, and nobody ever came, but it worked out well because it gave us a breathing spell. I was virtually the only person who had not been in the embassy at the time, so I didn’t suffer the shock of the explosion. (The juniors were really shocked and distraught, as everyone was, and one was hurt in the explosion.)

Then it really began. We went back to the American University Hospital, where everyone was taken. I tried to get a fix on who was there and who wasn’t and where we stood; the hospital promised that they would have this information for me at, I think, 8:00 that night. [In the] meantime, I tried to visit the ones I could find, and see how they were and find out what their situation was, and note that they were there.

Then one of the doctors asked me if I would come to the morgue and try to help them identify a woman’s husband. What they wanted was for me to look at the bodies and pick out two or three who could be her husband. I went in, and you know, they all looked alike there. They were all covered by a fine, gray dust.

I looked at all the bodies that were there…. It was not an easy embassy in which to get to know people. But I knew her husband, and I remembered his teeth were kind of squared off. They came out in right angles almost. There was this one body, and I thought, “Well, that’s his teeth. I know those are his teeth.” And the top of his head was blown off and his middle was all open.

So I asked if they could put a cloth over his head, down across his forehead and one across his middle before they showed her. She came in and said, no, that wasn’t her husband. I thought, “Well, if that isn’t her husband, then I’m not going to be able to do this job.” It was her husband. They finally found something in his pocket that she recognized as being his. But she couldn’t accept it, you know.

Then after that, my job, of course, as consular officer came down to all the corporal works of mercy, visiting the sick, identifying the dead. I was very fortunate in that there was a young woman who was studying dentistry, who was also a Red Cross volunteer. She had a very clinical, dispassionate view of the bodies; she called me over once and showed me a row of teeth. It wasn’t a mouth; it had become a row of teeth. She said, “Now, I think this could be an American filling, don’t you?” I said, “It could be any filling.” But that helped me tremendously. I realized that we weren’t talking about people; we were talking about empty vessels. The people were no longer there. That made it a lot more possible to work with this.

I didn’t realize how involved I was. I didn’t even notice the odor in the morgue. I mean, some, but it didn’t affect me that much. I was in there all the time. People would come in and not be able to stay, and they didn’t understand how I could. My body protected me. I didn’t realize I was in shock. I was kind of disengaged from the whole thing. I cared about the people, but I was kind of like an observer. That was the perfect shock to get, you know, because it was exactly the way to carry through. But I felt that I should be reacting, so I would try to go out for half an hour or so on the Corniche, the riverfront, with my dog every afternoon. The Marines knew where I was but wouldn’t tell anyone. I’d try to make myself cry, because I felt that this was right; I needed to do this. So that probably helped.

Seventeen Americans Killed

Then we got a message that Mr. [Lawrence] Eagleburger [Under Secretary for Management] wanted to come out and collect the American bodies and take them back to the States. He wanted to come on Wednesday and leave on Thursday. I knew that this wouldn’t work, but it took me a while to figure out why it wouldn’t, that we wouldn’t have the bodies yet. We wouldn’t have everybody. So, finally, we dissuaded him, so he came Friday and went back Saturday.…

In truth, we found the last body at 5:30 on Friday. I had been having the undertaker go ahead–they embalmed the bodies–go ahead and put them in caskets, because of the time constraints. We had 17 Americans. The caskets had to be lined in zinc, you know, because they were leaving the country. So I was having him do that as we went along.

Then we got a request on Thursday: “Can you verify that nothing has been added to these bodies or these caskets?” Because the President was going to walk in front of the caskets and maybe somebody had put an explosive in. Well, how could I say, “I’m certain there’s nothing in there”? I couldn’t do that. So I had to go back to my buddies at the hospital, the acting director, and say that we had to open all the caskets, and he understood, but the people in the morgue were very hurt, and I don’t blame them. Because I’m saying, “I don’t trust you,” which was very hard, because we were certainly working together. But I didn’t know how to look for explosives.

Coming on the plane with Mr. Eagleburger were a number of people, one of whom was a military person. So we decided that this military person would be the one to look in the caskets, because we didn’t know how to do this.

Then it dawned on me that after he’s checked the caskets and bodies, what happens? They could still do something to them. So I convinced the DCM that I had to have some Marines to take to the hospital morgue to guard the bodies. I had two fire teams, I didn’t want to spend the night with a bunch of bodies, you know. But we marched smartly up there. The Lebanese didn’t want to let them in, because there was a bomb scare against the hospital. I had a fun time talking the Lebanese military into letting my Marines into their hospital.

Anyway, so we got there. We had 17 bodies, but one man was a Quaker and his wife decided she wanted him cremated and his ashes spread there. So we had 16 caskets to be checked. We had this poor man–they’d open a casket and he’d look in and say, “Uh-hum.” They’d say, “See?” and he’d say, “Uh-hum.” Then they’d close the casket. He didn’t know any more about it than I did, you know. 

In the middle of this, a military team came with the flags to be put on the caskets, and the leader said, “Well, what is this?” This was Friday afternoon. Here we hadn’t yet found the last body. “I can’t put up with this. I can’t stay here all night doing this.”

I said, “Well, they’ll be here all night. They’ll put the flags on.”

“They don’t know how to put the flags on.”

I said, “Look, we’ve got a casket in there we don’t have to open. That man’s going to be cremated. They can practice with that one. Show them how to do it. Have them do it any number of times.” He was really a grouch, but we got that squared away.…

What we had to do was just terrible. Thank God we had these Marines, because we had to load a casket on this steel rolling bed, roll it down an incline, up an incline, down a very steep incline, and then up the street to the street corner, where there were so many newsmen and photographers. We had one hearse, the rest were ambulances and station wagons. We put two caskets to a vehicle. But in the station wagons, they wouldn’t fit, and you had to kind of put one on top of the other. The handles had broken on the caskets because they were so heavy with the zinc linings. These poor Marines were laboring so hard.

“This was the way it should be. It was so Lebanese”

Then it occurred to me, “I’d better get up there and guard the vehicles. Somebody could put something in one of the vehicles.” So I was standing up at the top of the street, observing the whole scene, and it was incredible. The undertaker was a very fat man. I mean, he looked like a movie character; he didn’t look like a real person. The traffic was starting by this time. It was getting close to 7:00. He would direct people one way, and his assistant would direct them another way. All this was going on with the photographers and these poor guys sweating to get the caskets in with some kind of dignity. Well, I thought, really, if you loved Beirut and you died in Beirut, this was right. This was the way it should be. It was so Lebanese.

We had one Marine for each vehicle, and I rode in the hearse because there was room for three people. The Marine who rode with me said, “The people who are in the Guard of Honor, who are going to move the caskets at the airport, are all lording it over everybody. Thank God I only had to do it at the hospital where nobody was watching.”

We drove like maniacs, and photographers were in cars with sunroofs, and they were hanging out and would come screeching by and take photographs. The military didn’t want to let us through, you know. There were checkpoints everywhere. I mean, it was just incredible.

We got to the airport, and here was this man who was concerned about the flags. He came over to the hearse. Of course, the caskets had slid up and down with the rough driving. He said, “Why do you have the caskets way up there? We can’t get to those caskets.”

I said, “Well, goodbye,” and I left to join my embassy colleagues at the service, and then sweated over whether the honor guard was going to drop the caskets.

“You have to be there for your employees”

But then that was just the beginning. You go through all that, and then you have to start to work. You have to rebuild your section, you have to find your files, you have to dig things out of the garbage. You have to try to reconstruct your immigrant visa files. You have to be there for your employees. The five employees I had left were distraught. You had to give them something to do while you were still trying to find the bodies. You had to run the section. It was very difficult.

It was a very difficult time, and we didn’t have an office. So I did it from my home and had to steal a typewriter here, a chair there, try to give the employees something to do. 

I set a target date for reopening for consular business, because I felt that was important for the Lebanese, the whole of Lebanon, and certainly for the employees. U.S. policy was, “We’re here. Life goes on. Business goes on, and life is going to return to normal.” Nobody cared about anything in the embassy but the consular section at that point; so we had to operate. We had to process as many people as we could, and we had to do it every day. That, I felt, was very important for our foreign policy at that point.

Everybody [in the embassy] was in shock. A lot of people were wounded. I didn’t get much in the way of office equipment. I had to go out and steal things. I’d go back to the old embassy. Because I knew these Marines, even though we weren’t supposed to go in there anymore, I could go in and get what I needed and set up my office.

At this time there were so many concerns. We were still looking for bodies. We were still dealing with the bereaved. Some people just disappeared; they just didn’t exist anymore. You’d find maybe feet with beige socks or something like that. I had to suggest to people that they go home and try to figure out exactly what their beloved was wearing that day, including shoes and socks.… 

There were visa applicants who were killed, there were employees who we never saw again, who may have been blown out to sea. So all these things continued even though we were trying to set up operations and go on. We still had these concerns on behalf of Lebanese who disappeared.…

We tried to get as much together in files as we could. It gave people something to do, you see. This was the big thing. I wanted the employees to be busy all the time, because they were very distraught. So I had them retype the cards that we had rescued. I had them make new cards. If all we had was a card, then we made a paper that Immigration agreed to accept. If people came to see us to ask about their immigrant cases, we’d ask them to bring us any papers that they had, like just a letter sending them “Packet Three” or whatever. We used that as the basis for the file. We built up files as best we could. Immigration didn’t give us any problem. 

“We felt like we were there alone”

We didn’t…feel that we were getting anything [from Washington]. We were just cut off. We felt like we were there alone. We were churning this out. It was probably not that the Department wasn’t supporting us, but we weren’t aware of it. I don’t know. We had to have TDYers if anybody went out on leave, so we had to fight to get a TDY [Temporary Duty Assignment].… 

We had to get out. The Department insisted that each one of us who was there come back on a rest and recuperation trip within two months, which was a good thing. For example, while the Eagleburger group was there, before that plane left, I asked that I be assigned a TDY consular officer to help me, because the two junior officers were really very psychologically wounded, and they had a lot of recovering to do. It took three weeks to get somebody. Now, I thought that was appalling. I think the only reason that they even got me anybody was that I came up with the name of somebody, and I don’t know why I even thought of that person…. 

We moved pretty fast into a routine, because that’s the beauty of consular work. You get the visa request and you act on it or you don’t act on it. You do your immigrant visas, you do your American services. I mean, we didn’t have to go out and try to summon our wits to interpret the political situation or make demarches or anything like that; we just had to get those visa applicants processed.

Of course, we had tremendous fraud problems. We had to have a lot of guards to screen people before they came in. We moved from my apartment to another apartment right next door to my building, actually to just part of an apartment. It was so noisy. One of my forays into the old embassy was to steal some carpeting to put up on the walls and the floor to deaden the noise. It was just terrible. Of course, the system that the Seabees [Construction Battalion] built for us, they built a wall with Plexiglas in which they put interviewing holes. Well, the hole was down here or way up here. You couldn’t really have a conversation, so you’d have to hang around the side to do your interviews. So the guards had to really screen people. But they became involved in fraud, and we just had so many such situations, it was very hectic.

We seemed to be going along very well, but then somebody would get a phone call and fall to pieces, and you’d just have to go over and embrace the person. The tension was incredible, even when we got into the routine. And the routine was what saved people. That’s why I was very anxious to get a routine started for these employees, these locals, because they’d lost friends, it was their country that was going down the tubes, and the shock of the embassy being blown up was a tremendous shock for the people of Lebanon, because we were supposed to be invulnerable. So we got our routine going, and you had to work so hard, you didn’t have time to think about anything else.