WASHINGTON — The Air Force has concluded that air crew members acted appropriately and were not at fault for some tragic deaths during the chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan last year, when desperate Afghans clung to a military plane as it was taking off and fell to their deaths or were caught in the wheels.
In a statement Monday, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said investigations into the deaths found that the crew "exercised sound judgment in their decision to get airborne as quickly as possible when faced with an unprecedented and rapidly deteriorating security situation."
Video and other reports from that day vividly show Afghans mobbing the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, frantic to get out of the country when the Taliban seized control and U.S. forces were withdrawing. The C-17 transport plane was surrounded as 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 lifted off, mobile phone video captured two tiny dots dropping from the aircraft. It later became clear that the dots were Afghans who had tried to hide in the wheel well. As the wheels folded into the body of the plane, the stowaways faced the choice of being crushed to death or letting go and plunging to the ground.
Human remains were found in the wheel well 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," said Stefanek. She said the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations looked into the incident and then turned the scene over to Qatar authorities, who declined to investigate further.
"The aircrew's airmanship and quick thinking ensured the safety of the crew and their aircraft," said Stefanek. "After seeking appropriate care and services to help cope with any trauma from this unprecedented experience, the crew returned to flight status."
It is still unclear how many were killed. Videos show the two dots falling from the airborne plane, several seconds apart. But two bodies landed on the same rooftop at the same time, suggesting they fell together, so the other figure seen falling in the videos could be at least one other person.
Afghans later identified one of those who fell to 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 C-17's wheels.