Al Jubayl case narrative reports on incidents reported by 24th Seabees

WASHINGTON, August 27, 1997 (GulfLINK) — The latest in a series of "case narratives" on suspected chemical incidents during the Gulf War determined that four reported incidents at Al Jubayl were either "unlikely" or "definitely not" caused by chemical warfare agents.

On August 14, The Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses (OSAGWI) issued the fourth in its series of case narratives on incidents during the Gulf War that might have involved chemical warfare agents.

This latest case narrative describes four reported incidents in Al Jubayl, Saudi Arabia, a port on the Persian Gulf. All four reports came from an Alabama Seabee unit, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 24 (NMCB-24), which was stationed in Al Jubayl from December 1990 to April 1991.

The first incident involves reports of a "loud noise" heard about 3:30 a.m., January 19, 1991, Some individuals had concerns that this was an incoming SCUD missile exploding.

Although the U.S. Space Command tracked all SCUDs launched by Iraq during the war, it recorded no SCUD launches towards Al Jubayl on January 19th. The investigation located the electronic records of an Air Force AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) radar aircraft flying over Saudi Arabia that day. It had recorded two British-made Tornado warplanes flying over Al Jubayl at 3:27 a.m. Both were accelerating in speed and broke the sound barrier shortly after passing over the city.

Since this was approximately the same time as the "loud noise" was heard and reported, the OSAGWI report concluded that a chemical incident was "unlikely" in this instance.

The second case involved a series of air raid alerts less than 48 hours later, at about 10 p.m. on January 20, 1991. A check of SCUD activity showed that three SCUDs were fired that night from Iraq in the direction of Dhahran, which would have taken them over Al Jubayl. Multiple Patriot missiles were fired at these three SCUDs and hits were reported on all three. But there was no record of a SCUD impact site in the Al Jubayl area. This event is recorded in numerous command log entries and the SCUD launch database. The investigators’ assessment was that this was "unlikely" to be an instance of the use of chemical warfare agents.

The third case involved a SCUD impact at Al Jubayl on February 16, 1991. That SCUD missile fell into the harbor. There were no injuries to personnel or damage to equipment as a result of this incident. The SCUD was located and subsequently removed from the water in pieces, including the warhead. A photograph of it is included in the OSAGWI report. Tests conducted at this time for chemical agents were negative. In addition, no medical records have been found of any individual receiving medical treatment for symptoms which would be consistent with chemical weapon exposure.

The OSAGWI investigators reached an assessment that this was "definitely not" an instance of chemical warfare.

The fourth and last event has been characterized as the "purple T-shirt" case. On March 19, 1991, seven Seabees sought medical care after saying they had been exposed to fumes that caused burning of the eyes, noses and throats, and that turned their brown T-shirts purple. After showering and changing clothes, they returned to duty with no further symptoms.

There was broad agreement on the existence of the fumes, but each Seabee recalled the smell differently and only one saw its possible origin. A master chief reported a cloud of purple dust emerging from the smokestack of a fertilizer factory, just to the east of where the Seabees were based. Later tests performed by the Army’s Natick Research Center in Massachusetts revealed that brown military T-shirts will turn purple when subjected to acids such as sulfuric (battery) acid and nitric/nitrous oxides from nitric acid.

Prior to the Gulf War, the Center for Naval Analysis had studied all of the industries in the Al Jubayl area in response to Marine concerns that chemical emissions from those plants might harm troops stationed in the region. That report listed several corrosive and caustic chemicals used at chemical plants located near the Seabee base.

The OSAGWI case narrative assessment was that the purple T-shirt incident, which occurred more than two weeks after the cease-fire which halted military operations, was "definitely not" an instance of chemical warfare agent presence. In addition, the symptoms reported by the individuals and their rapid recovery is not consistent with exposure to chemical warfare agents.

Sixty-seven NMBC-24 personnel were interviewed, including the command staff, NBC team members, medical personnel, and unit personnel. Members of several other units stationed in Al Jubayl in early 1991 were also interviewed. These included: the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion-40, the Coast Guard Port Security Unit-301, the Navy’s explosive Ordinance Disposal Detachment 33, and the Marine Air Group-13. Each of these interviews helped broaden the knowledge of the circumstances to be considered, which allowed a much better assessment of the situation than would have been possible otherwise.

OSAGWI plans to send a letter to notify all U.S. troops who were at Al Jubayl on January 19-21, February 16, and March 19, 1991. The letter will include a summary of the Al Jubayl case narrative and a request for further information from individuals who had relevant eyewitness experiences. This targeted notification will be sent to thousands of individuals, including both the 24th Seabees and several other nearby units.

This report is an "interim" one detailing what is known to date. Revised versions of the case narrative will be issued as more information becomes available. The conclusions may also change as any new information changes the weight of the evidence. OSAGWI is now drawing tentative conclusions in its case narratives. The assessments on the likelihood of the presence of a chemical warfare agent are summarized in one of five terms: Definite; likely; indeterminate; unlikely; definitely not.

In addition to informing the public, narratives are intended to open up a dialogue. Gulf War veterans who may have additional information or who can clarify these events are encouraged to call the Gulf War incident hotline at 1-800-472-6719.

Gulf War veterans experiencing health problems are encouraged to receive a free health screening through the DoD’s or Department of Veterans’ Affairs health registries. Those individuals still on active duty, military retirees, or those affiliated with the Reserve components can arrange a medical examination through the Comprehensive Clinical Evaluation Program at 1-800-796-9699. Those no longer affiliated with DoD, including reserve personnel, can arrange a medical examination through the VA’s Persian Gulf War Registry at 1-800-749-8387.