The images are heart-wrenching—desperate Afghan civilians clinging to the outside of a C-17 transport aircraft hoping to escape as Taliban insurgent forces regained control earlier this week. One U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III, using call sign Reach 871, was noted for safely evacuating some 640 Afghan civilians from Kabul late Sunday, nearly setting the record for the most people ever flown in a Boeing airlifter.
Despite the cramped conditions where passengers were packed tightly with little room to move during the flight to Qatar, they may have truly been the lucky ones. Some of their fellow civilians gave their lives in an attempt to reach safety. It has been reported that human remains were found within the wheel wells of at least one C-17 that had landed at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar.
C-17 Globemaster IIIs had been deployed to Hamid Karzai International Airport to deliver equipment to help evacuate Americans and allies from the city as Taliban forces converged on the Afghan capital of Kabul. On Sunday images taken from cellphones went viral online, showing the chaotic scene at the airport as desperate Afghans rushed an aircraft as it was moving down the runway.
In some of the videos, objects can be seen falling from the plane as it gains altitude. They are believed by most to be the bodies of Afghans. Others met an equally grim fate.
"Before the aircrew could offload the cargo, the aircraft was surrounded by hundreds of Afghan civilians who had breached the airport perimeter," the Air Force said in a statement and reported by FoxNews.
"Faced with a rapidly deteriorating security situation around the aircraft, the C-17 crew decided to depart the airfield as quickly as possible. In addition to videos seen online and in press reports, human remains were discovered in the wheel well of the C-17 after it landed at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar," the statement added. "The aircraft is currently impounded to provide time to collect the remains and inspect the aircraft before it is returned to flying status."
It isn't clear how many individuals may have died inside the wheel well.
Hundreds Did Make it to Safety
According to reports, several aircraft took off with hundreds of people aboard including Reach 871. Officials have said some of the other aircraft may have had even larger loads. The Afghans had to sit on the floor in a procedure known as "floor loading," where they must hang onto cargo straps that run wall to wall, and which can also be used as makeshift seatbelts.
While not a record that anyone would actually want to set for the most individuals in the aircraft, in 2013, a C-17 evacuated 670 people fleeing a typhoon in the Philippines. Yet, given the situation as it unfolded in Afghanistan, it is easy to see why these civilians would be willing to be crammed in the aircraft to get out of the country.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.