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Former Charge d’affaires Recounts US Embassy Bombings in Dar: ‘Unforgettable’

Mr John Lange, who served as the charge d’affaires at the US Embassy when the bombings happened, shares lessons that the tragic incidents taught him.

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Dar es Salaam. August 7 marked the 25th anniversary of the US Embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, leading to the deaths of over 224 people, which included 12 Americans, 34 Kenyans and 10 Tanzanians. The attacks were attributed to the global terrorist organisation Al-Qaeda.

In commemorating the anniversary, the US State Department, responsible for the North American nation’s foreign affairs, organised an event to remember those who lost their lives in the tragic incident, which occurred on August 7, 1998.

Anthony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, addressed those who attended the commemoration, which included Tanzania’s Ambassador to the United States, Elsie Kanza. The commemoration was followed by a panel discussion on lessons learned from the incident.

John Lange, who served as the charge d’affaires at the US Embassy in Dar es Salaam when the bombings happened, was among those who recounted the attack, highlighting some key lessons he learned from it.

Here, we publish Mr Lange’s recollection in full. Minor editings have been done to enhance readability:

In August 1998, those at the US Embassy in Dar es Salaam were working with the Tanzanian Government to strengthen democratic institutions, spur economic growth, improve health and education, and promote regional stability.

It was the kind of work that the Foreign Service does every day, worldwide, and we were proud to represent the United States.

August 7th began as another beautiful day in Dar es Salaam. Then without warning, a truck bomb with 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of TNT exploded on the street just outside the embassy. Everyone here who was in Dar or Nairobi that day can remember the exact second the bomb went off.

And I was just talking today to Ambassador Kanza, who can remember where she was in the central bank where she was working at the time in Dar es Salaam. Everyone remembers that.

For me, I remember I was in my office, sitting on a sofa with my back against the outside wall. And I remember – and I can still see it in slow motion – the glass from the window behind me blew over my head and landed on the people in front of me.

Thankfully, none of those were seriously injured because it was a Mylar plastic film on the glass, so it came in sheets rather than shards. But 11 people perished in that bombing, and over 85 were injured.

The dead included the husband of an American Fulbright Fellow – Susan Hirsch — her husband, Jamal Abdalla, died, Foreign Service national employees died, [and] security guards and contractors died. The embassy and nearly all nearby residences and office buildings were devastated.

As The New York Times described it: “The back of the embassy had been peeled away by the bomb. Staircases hung… in the air, and concrete slabs blown from the building were strewn over the grounds. Nearby cars had become steel skeletons.”

Our embassy, like the one in Nairobi, was far from meeting security standards. We had only a 30-foot setback from the street. No one working for the United States abroad should have to work in insecure facilities.

While it is comforting to know that many new, more secure embassies have been built since those tragic events in Dar and Nairobi 25 years ago, much more must be done. Nothing is more important than protecting our people.

One of the most striking things about the response by the survivors – many of whom are with us here today – was how American personnel, their family members, and locally employed staff took on duties they were never trained or expected to do.

In Dar es Salaam, we consoled the families of those who died and cared for the injured – several of whom were medically evacuated. We set up an airport operation, arranged for hotel accommodations, and fed the 350 American TDY personnel who arrived to support us.

We re-established embassy operations in what had been the residence of the public affairs officer guarded by US Marines. And we worked with the Tanzanian Government and the FBI to assist in the investigation that led to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.

And I know that many of those who were in Dar that day, and I assume that many of those who were in Nairobi that day, subsequently suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

I understand that there’s now an effort in Congress to increase the number of personnel in the Bureau of Medical Services who address mental health needs, and I think that’s long overdue.

I would hope that Med would do a mental health survey of current and retired employees and dependents who went through traumatic situations in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

For the victims of the 1998 bombings, it’s never been done.

One of the fundamental lessons that I draw from the bombings is how critical it is for the State Department and other foreign affairs agencies to recruit and retain top-notch career employees, train them properly, house them in secure facilities, and reward them for their service.

When the bomb went off, no one had the time to read the post’s emergency action plan under the tab “Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device.” We responded by instinct based on years, often decades, of training and experience.

I look on all of the Dar and Nairobi responders as heroes, and none of us will ever forget that tragic day!

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