Page last updated at 18:10 GMT, Thursday, 28 October 2010 19:10 UK

US soldier on aftermath of WikiLeaks Apache attack

Ethan McCord describes the moment he realised Sajad Toman was alive

In July 2007, 19 people were killed when an Apache helicopter opened fire on a group of Iraqis whom the pilots had identified as armed insurgents. The attack, in which 12 civilians died, became notorious when cockpit footage of the attack was published on the WikiLeaks website.

In an exclusive interview on BBC Newsnight, Ethan McCord, one of the first US foot soldiers to arrive at the scene of the attack, has spoken about what he found on the ground that day and its effect on him since.

Mr McCord, who has since left the US army, was in a group of soldiers who had been despatched to the Baghdad neighbourhood in the early hours of the morning to carry out house-to-house searches for weapons and explosives.

They were gathering up people and putting them into a truck when they heard an Apache helicopter open fire nearby.

I was running water through her hair trying to wash out the blood and glass from her hair too, and the whole time I'm fighting back tears
Ethan McCord

"We didn't know what was going on, we didn't get any of the radio chatter on the ground," he explains. "We were roughly only about three or four blocks away from the courtyard and we were told to move to that location."

The helicopter had shot at a group whom the pilots believed were armed insurgents. Minutes later when a group of unconnected civilians travelling in a van drove into the area they also came under fire.

'Sickening scene'

Mr McCord was one of the first soldiers to enter the courtyard. He describes seeing a group of dead men near a wall, with a rocket propelled grenade lying near them.

"They didn't appear human to me, they looked like something out of a horror movie, it didn't feel real," he says.

"I could hear a child crying, the cry was coming from the van," Mr McCord says.

When he and a fellow soldier looked inside the driver's cab of the van they were confronted with a scene which caused his colleague to vomit and move away.

WikiLeaks posts video of 'US military killings' in Iraq

"What I saw when I looked in was a little girl, about three or four years old, sitting on the passenger seat."

The girl, Duah Toman, was gravely injured with a wound to her stomach and glass in her eyes and hair.

According to Mr McCord, next to her there was a boy aged about seven or eight, "sitting half on the floorboard, with his head resting on the seat" who appeared dead, and in the driver's seat the body of a man - the children's father.

"When I first pulled the girl out and had her in my arms cradling her, it is kind of weird to explain it, but I felt like I was holding my own child," Mr McCord, who is the father of two young children, says.

"I am trying to pick as much glass out of her eyes as I can, so that she can close them without cutting her eyes anymore. I was running water through her hair trying to wash out the blood and glass from her hair too, and the whole time I'm fighting back tears."

'Enormous blood loss'

Realising the seriousness of the girl's wounds a medic moved the child to a Bradley armoured vehicle for evacuation, and Mr McCord started taking photos of the scene as he had been told to do.

It was when he looked back into the van on the passenger's side that he saw the boy take a breath.

"That's when I started screaming out 'the boy's alive, the boy's alive' and I picked him up, told him that everything would be OK, and started running towards the Bradley," Mr McCord explains.

Things from that day changed for me. I no longer felt that I was doing good in Iraq
Ethan McCord

This moment, with Mr McCord running with the child in his arms and placing him in the armoured vehicle, can be clearly seen in the footage of the attack which was leaked to the WikiLeaks website, one of the first major leaks of classified US military material from nearly eight years of conflict in Iraq.

"He opened his eyes and looked at me, and I told him that it was going to be OK, that I had him, and 'don't die, don't die', and his eyes rolled back into his head again."

"There was just so much blood on me from him that I didn't think he was going to survive," Mr McCord says.

Despite the severity of their wounds, both Sajad and Duah Toman did live.

Footage on the news

Mr McCord says that it was only afterwards that he realised what had happened.

"I had to clean the blood of the children off my uniform and my IBA - which is your protective vest, and I had a huge flood of emotions just barraging me, and I started piecing it together and just started realising that it was the Apache that did that."

"Things from that day changed for me," Mr McCord says. "I no longer felt that I was doing good in Iraq, it became more along the lines of 'I'm just here to make it home to my kids now'."

WikiLeaks logo
WikiLeaks posted the 39-minute long atttack video on its website

Mr McCord returned to Kansas and left the army in July 2009, but the legacy of that day, and of other days in Iraq, remained with him, playing on his mind and giving him trouble sleeping.

However, by this year things had improved.

"I wasn't thinking about Iraq as much, I was more worried about my children and life as almost a single father," he says.

However, on the morning of 5 April 2010, after dropping off his children, he returned home and turned on the TV news as usual, only to see a broadcast of the WikiLeaks footage of him running with Sajad in his arms.

"I knew it was me immediately because that whole image is burned into my head, the whole day is there, it has always been in the back of my head.

"The smells came back to me of that day, the images, the cries of the child came back to me. I was really angry because I had tried to put this behind me and not think about it."

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06 Apr 10 |  Americas

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