Israeli Missiles Rip Into Medics' Esprit de Corps
By Megan K. Stack
Times Staff Writer
Angeles Times" -- -- TYRE, Lebanon — In the burning
haze of the missile strike, Qasim Chaalan thought he had died. But
piece by piece, he noticed that he was still there, inside the
ambulance. He could still feel his body. He opened his eyes, and
discovered he could see.
He and the other medics were lucky: They had survived the blow of an
Israeli missile. Dazed and slow, one of the men fumbled for the
radio and began, "We have an accident…. " He didn't finish the
sentence. A second missile smashed with a roar into the ambulance
Six Red Cross volunteers were wounded in the Sunday attack, and the
injured family they were ferrying to safety suffered fresh agonies.
A middle-age man lost his leg from the knee down. His mother was
partially paralyzed. A little boy's head was hammered by shrapnel.
Perhaps most dangerous of all, the attack blunted the zeal of the
band of gonzo ambulance drivers who have doggedly plugged away as
Red Cross volunteers. Young men and women with easy grins and a
breezy disregard for their own safety, they have remained as the
last visible strand of social structure intact after days of Israeli
When the fighting erupted between Israel and Hezbollah, many of the
volunteers sent their families north and stayed behind to help their
countrymen. Clad in helmets and flak jackets, they brave a rain of
Israeli bombs, a crazy maze of cratered roads and perpetual
uncertainty over how bad the fighting might become. Fiercely proud
of their work at the Red Cross, they had clung desperately to the
hope that, as lifesavers, they would be spared.
Many times over nearly two weeks of bombing, medics say, missiles
struck the roads nearby; they felt harassed. But somehow, they
managed to convince themselves that they were invulnerable to
"We used to kid ourselves, think we couldn't be hit," 38-year-old
volunteer Imad Hillal said. "Even in this war, even when bombs fell
around us, we never thought we'd be hit. But what happened has
Sitting in the radio room at Red Cross headquarters here Monday,
Hillal rested his head wearily on one hand. When asked whether the
ambulances would continue running, tears clouded his eyes.
The Red Cross team had been sent out into a night that thundered
with falling bombs. They'd been assigned to ferry three wounded
civilians out of the heaviest battle zone of the southern
borderlands on Sunday. One team of medics had headed north from the
town of Tibnin, the wounded family stretched flat on gurneys in the
back. The other team had rushed south from Tyre to meet them
From the time the call came in, Chaalan hadn't been able to shake
his dread. He didn't understand why. He had made the trip plenty of
As he made his way out to the ambulance, he turned to the other
medics loitering around and, surprising even himself, used a
traditional Arabic farewell that implies death may be near.
"I'll see you, forgive me," he told them. He'd never said that
before. One of his colleagues followed him out the door. "Please
take care," she said. She'd never done that before; it made him even
more nervous. He brushed her off and climbed into the ambulance.
The three young men drove out to the town of Qana. Looking up, they
could see red lights in the sky overhead. Israeli planes, Chaalan
They came to a stop on a stretch of battle-pocked roadway in Qana.
The medics favor that spot because the ambulances, with their
trademark red crosses emblazoned on the roofs, can be seen clearly
from above. They thought it was safe.
They climbed down, removed the patients from the other ambulance and
slid them into place. They moved fast; everybody was nervous.
Then the roar and smash of the missiles shattered the summer night.
Both ambulances were hit, directly and systematically, by Israeli
bombs, the medics said.
Everybody else must be dead, Chaalan remembered thinking as he
slowly came to his senses. He called out his first medic's name, and
got an answer. He called out the second man's name. Silence. "We
lost one man," he thought.
The grandmother had crawled out of the ambulance after the first
missile strike, but the medics didn't realize that. There was no way
the adults could have survived, the medics decided.
So they grabbed the little boy and took shelter in a nearby
Most of the houses on the street stood empty, abandoned by families
who'd heeded Israeli evacuation orders and fled north. More bombings
continued to puncture the night.
Huddled in the darkness of the basement, they ran their hands over
their own bodies, checking for injuries. The boy's head, full of
shrapnel, was bleeding badly. They used T-shirts to bandage his
Then they waited in the darkness. They managed to get through to the
Red Cross station from their cellphones. An hour and a half dragged
Finally, Hillal and the other medics made it to the scene. "It was a
disaster," he said.
"The cars had exploded all over the place. There was one man so
badly injured we didn't know what to do for him."
At first, the Red Cross had considered whether to stop making
ambulance runs altogether, he said. Then the organization thought
better of it and recommended that the teams only stop driving south.
Hillal didn't know what would happen. He only knew that the ground
rules had been blasted away — the medics had been stripped of their
sense of safety.
"When we were driving in the ambulance before, we did not feel we
are safe 100%," Chaalan said. "But now it's direct on us."
On Monday, medics and the wounded family were all in the hospital.
The grandmother lay on her side in a hospital bed, face turned to
the sky outside her window.
"Give me something for the pain," she groaned. "I'm going to vomit."
A son and grandson were unconscious in the intensive care unit. Her
son, whose leg had been struck by the missile, lay under a tangle of
tubes. The sheet reached just below the knee. His calf wasn't there
Chaalan was bleeding from the ear, and stitches bound his chin and a
leg. He needed a few more days to recover, but he insisted on going
He peeled off his bandages before stopping by to kiss his mother.
And then he was back at the Red Cross station, padding around in a
Las Vegas T-shirt, insisting that he was ready to get back to work.
"I prefer to die when I'm helping people," he said. "Not when I'm
Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times