DoD assessments for events at Al Jubayl remain unchanged

WASHINGTON, February 22S, 2001 (GulfLINK) - An updated case narrative about three suspected chemical warfare agent incidents reported in the Al Jubayl area of Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War was released today by the Department of Defense. The three significant events came to be known as the "loud noise" events, the Scud impact event and the purple T-shirt event. Investigators from the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses learned of the events through veteran testimony before Congress, news reports and interviews of Gulf War veterans.

"This version contains the results of our latest analysis of the 'loud noise event,'" said Dale A. Vesser, the acting special assistant. "The results from the analysis allowed us to assess that the loud noise event was 'definitely not' caused by an Iraqi attack. However, because we cannot positively identify the source of the white cloud or mist and the burning skin phenomenon, our assessment as to the presence of chemical warfare agents in Al Jubayl during the loud noise event continues to be unlikely."

Since the case narrative's original publication on Aug. 13, 1997, a number of issues relating to the report have instigated changes. Foremost among these issues are the investigation of two independently developed alternative scenarios for the loud noise event, General Accounting Office recommendations for the inclusion of medical information from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Unit 24, and the release of the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence findings from its investigation of the loud noise event.

"In addition to the synopsis of the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence's independent investigation, we included a description of the post-war health problems of the Seabees from NMCB-24," Vesser said.

The outcome of the expanded investigation and enhanced source document list provided more detailed evidence and enabled investigators to assess that the loud noise was definitely caused by Coalition aircraft and not an Iraqi attack. However, the loud noise was not the only incident to occur during the early morning hours of Jan. 19, 1991. Something caused the white cloud or mist and the burning skin. Because we cannot identify the source for either phenomenon, the original assessment of "unlikely" remains. The assessment of "definitely not" made of the Scud impact and the purple T-shirt event remains unchanged.

The loud noise incident involved two reports of loud, explosive-like noises heard first on Jan. 19, 1991, about 3:30 a.m., and again during the evening of Jan. 20, 1991, or early morning hours of Jan. 21, 1991.

Some individuals had concerns that the January 19 event was an incoming Scud missile exploding. However, U.S. Space Command tracked all Scuds launched by Iraq during the war and recorded no Scud launches towards Al Jubayl on January 19.

Investigators located the electronic records of the Air Force Airborne Warning and Control System radar aircraft flying over Saudi Arabia that day. The 552nd Computer Group at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., analyzed the data. The AWACS recorded two warplanes flying over Al Jubayl at 3:27 a.m. Both aircraft were accelerating in speed and broke the sound barrier as they passed over the city. Since this was approximately the same time the "loud noise" was heard and reported, investigators concluded what witnesses heard was the sonic boom generated by the two aircraft.

The loud noise event on Jan. 19, 1991, was complicated by reports of other incidents in the Al Jubayl area. These incidents included reports of some locations being fired upon, positive detections of chemical warfare agents, the sighting of a white cloud and mist in the air, a flash of light or fireball in the sky, and a propeller-driven aircraft flying over the area. Collectively, these incidents convinced some veterans that Iraq had attacked Al Jubayl with chemical warfare agents. Although some locations initially reported positive test results for nerve and blister agents, all subsequent tests performed by nuclear, biological and chemical teams proved negative for the presence of chemical warfare agents and no chemical warfare injuries were reported by area medical facilities.

The second night's noise events involved a series of air raid alerts beginning about 10 p.m. on Jan. 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.

After publishing the original case narrative in August 1997, two private citizens challenged the assessment of the loud noise event. They presented two scenarios for chemical attack. The first attack scenario involved firing a Styx missile armed with a chemical weapons warhead from a fast patrol boat. The second attack scenario involved an Iraqi aircraft spraying chemical warfare agents over the city.

The Center for Naval Analyses provided supplemental review and analysis of the attack boat scenario. Researchers concluded that although Iraq did have fast attack boats that carried the Styx missile system, and Styx missiles were presumed to have a chemical warfare capability, no such attack occurred. No mysterious or unidentified boats were reported off the coast of Saudi Arabia during this time. Additionally, the capabilities of the surveillance systems aboard an U.S. Navy Orion P-3 and the British-made Nimrod aircraft, combined with strategically placed Coalition warships, virtually precluded the possibility of an undetected, seaborne attack. The Center determined it was highly unlikely that an attack boat could have sailed down the coasts of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, launched an attack against Al Jubayl, and retreated without detection throughout the operation.

Likewise, a similar analysis by the 552nd Air Control Wing refutes the airborne attack scenario. During the Gulf War all aircraft were tracked from take-off to landing. A review of AWACS surveillance data shows that during the early morning hours of January 19, the only aircraft airborne at the time of the loud noise event were Coalition aircraft. The 552nd experts concluded that it was highly unlikely that Iraqi aircraft penetrated Saudi airspace and avoided detection.

The Scud impact event occurred at Al Jubayl on Feb. 16, 1991, when a 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 is included in the case narrative. Tests conducted for chemical agents at that time were negative. When the warhead was removed from the water, it was found to contain high explosives and not chemical warfare agents. In addition, no medical records have been found of any individual receiving medical treatment for symptoms that would be consistent with exposure to a chemical warfare agent.

No chemical warheads were ever found with any of the Scud missiles salvaged during or after the Gulf War. There is no evidence that Iraq ever used chemical warfare agents during the war. Investigators reached an assessment that this was "definitely not" an instance of chemical warfare.

The last incident was the "purple T-shirt" event. On March 19, 1991, seven Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 24 sought medical care after being exposed to fumes that caused their eyes, noses and throats to burn. Portions of these same individuals' T-shirts, damp from perspiration, changed color from brown to purple.

After showering and changing clothes, they returned to duty with no further symptoms. There was broad agreement on the existence of fumes, but each Seabee recalled the smell differently and only one saw its possible origin.

A master chief petty officer 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 Analyses had studied all of the industries in the Al Jubayl area in response to Marine Corps 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 case narrative assessment was that the purple T-shirt incident, which occurred more than two weeks after the cease-fire halted ground combat operations against the Iraqis, was "definitely not" an instance of chemical warfare agent presence. In addition, the symptoms reported by the individuals and their rapid recovery are not consistent with exposure to chemical warfare agents.

Analysts interviewed 67 Seabees assigned to NMBC-24, 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 Ordnance Disposal Detachment 33 and the Marine Air Group-13. Those 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.

Since the end of the Gulf War, several Seabees - primarily from NMCB-24 - have reported experiencing a variety of medical conditions that they attribute to their deployment to the Gulf War. Because the complaints are primarily from the same unit, the news media have given this phenomenon national attention. Conclusions based upon studies completed to date are inconclusive and identify no single factor as a likely cause for the Seabees' ailments, other than to indicate a probable exposure to some type of toxic substance.

"Let me assure you, we have made every attempt possible to find plausible causes for their claims of illnesses," continued Vesser. "It is not that we doubt the Seabees from NMCB 24 were exposed to something. The problem is that we can find no credible indications to support the claims of their exposure to chemical warfare agents. We have found no evidence that members of other units at Al Jubayl have made similar claims."

Veterans with new or additional information should call the direct veteran's hotline at (800) 497-6261. Additionally, any veteran desiring a free, in-depth medical examination should call the DoD's Comprehensive Clinical Evaluation Program at (800) 796-9699 or the VA's Persian Gulf Registry at (800) 749-8387 to enroll.