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Courage under fire
Courage under fire
By NANCY DILLON
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
BAGHDAD - As its armored Humvees rumbled west along Route Mets in northern Baghdad, the ill-fated convoy sensed something was wrong.
"I remember we all mentioned there were no Iraqi police out. We were like, 'Oh man, that's never a good sign,'" said Daniel Barr, 33, a sergeant with New York's Fighting 69th.
"It was still an hour and a half before curfew. It seemed like the neighborhood knew something."
The soldiers were in the same meat market a week earlier, buying watermelon from a local vendor. But now it was 10:45 p.m., and the darkness was compounded by the start of a nasty sandstorm that would later shut down Baghdad.
Nobody saw the powerful platter charge hidden in a bag and tucked beside a vending stall.
In a horrifying flash, the bomb exploded just 16 feet from the convoy's lead Humvee. Molten chunks of steel and copper ripped through the vehicle's turret and right rear passenger door.
The driver, Spec. Brian Lopez of Queens, took a hail of shrapnel in his neck and arm and struggled to control the burning vehicle as it tore through several meat stands and slammed into a building at 30 mph.
The Brooklyn-born gunner, Sgt. Anthony Kalladeen, 26, and backseat rider Pfc. Hernando Rios, 29, of Woodside, Queens, died instantly.
It was Aug. 7, a month before the group was scheduled to return home from a year-long tour.
"I remember Kalladeen and Rios, there wasn't a sound out of them," recalled Barr, who was sitting in the front passenger seat and temporarily knocked unconscious by the blast. "Lopez was wandering around the vehicle in pain. I know I was in pain. ... The next thing I know I'm running down the road trying to load Kalladeen into a vehicle, but the door wouldn't close."
"It was rough," he said with vacant eyes trained on the dusty earth. "I know I knew they were gone."
And still, the devastating blast was only the beginning.
A 30-minute firefight erupted moments later, with insurgency fire raining down from a position four stories up in a building.
Sgt. Richard Smoot of upstate Watertown driving behind, raced through the smoke and wreckage to provide up-front security. Sgt. Wing Har of Jamaica, Queens, who'd been riding in the third Humvee of the four-vehicle convoy, also joined the fight, as medic Bryan Johnson tried in vain to get Kalladeen's heart pumping again.
"I called for a body bag for Kalladeen but then I thought I felt a pulse so I tried CPR and rescue breathing. But it didn't work. It didn't work. He was gone," Johnson, 27, said with dismay.
As an evacuation helicopter tried but failed to land because of the sandstorm, Johnson set to work on the other wounded. He fit Lopez with an IV and oxygen mask, and then inadvertently stuck his own index finger with a morphine shot in the chaos.
Meanwhile up front, Har felt a sharp, burning sensation on his back and later learned he had been hit with gunfire and probably would have died if not for the ceramic rifle plate in his bullet-proof vest.
Sgt. Smoot estimates he went through eight magazines of 30 rounds each fending off the attack.
As they sat under a giant desert oak tree on Camp Stryker on Wednesday, six members of the tragic convoy lit up with smiles and inside jokes when they talked about the fallen soldiers who had become their brothers.
They said Kalladeen, who was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Yonkers, was a talented wrestler, always the first to report for patrols and quick to spend his own money on photographs and other gifts for Iraqi families.
They remembered their Queens buddy Rios as an avid reader and father of three who loved to eat and once got himself stuck trying on the life preserver at Camp Liberty's pool.
Johnson reflected on their loss.
"I'm hurt, upset, mad," he said. "It's a bad feeling to make it [11 months] and then take losses like this. It's frustrating."
Since it arrived in Iraq last October, New York's Fighting 69th has lost 19 men under its command.
The area in northwestern Baghdad where Kalladeen and Rios were killed recently has seen an uptick in violence.
"In the last few weeks we've identified two new terror cells in our area," said Lt. Ronnie Maloney, 34.
"When we came here, we all knew there was the possibility something bad could happen. Still it's upsetting," said Sgt. Walter Nichols, 42, a police officer in Niagara Falls who was in the Aug. 7 patrol. "You prepare, plan and know it's possible. But you never expect it to happen to you."