NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — A New Jersey hero and his flight crew helped U.S. troops end the war in Afghanistan.
CBS2’s Kristine Johnson recently spoke with them about what they went through that day, and got exclusive access inside a military plane just like the one from the refugee rescue.
“Eight hundred people on your jet? Holy cow.”
You may not have heard that radio transmission, but you’ve likely seen the now-iconic photo onboard a Air Force C-17 aircraft. Afghan refugees were packed in so tight, no one shifted during takeoff or landing.
“We’re getting ready to do a normal mission, and it turned into something a little bit more meaningful by beaing able to do what you saw in that picture,” Lt. Col. Eric Kut said.
Kut, a New Jersey native currently stationed at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, was the lead officer on that flight, which was part of a Operation Allies Refuge, the largest non-combatant evacuation airlift in U.S. history.
The plane they boarded was a massive military aircraft capable of holding hundreds of thousands of pounds, but it was never intended for more than just a few hundred passengers.
“Did you know how many people you had on that jet?” Johnson asked.
“We did … It turned out to be 823,” Kut said.
“There was not a limit that day. If it fits, it ships,” Loadmaster Tech Sgt. Justin Triola added.
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Triola took the photo and made that critical judgment call.
“I made sure that this area was clear, made sure the edges were clear, and everybody was safely on board,” Triola said.
“I just want to get a visual. From here to there, a sea of Afghan refugees?” Johnson said.
“The hardest part was after I closed [was] trying to make it back to the front,” Triola said.
“Did you realize what a significant moment that was?” Johnson asked.
“Definitely not at the time, but once we took off, it hit home after that,” Triola said.
Staff Sgt. Derek Laurent distinctly remembers the gentlemen standing in the back of the photo, who helped with the language barrier.
“He was seeing our hand signals, telling everyone to sit down,” Laurent said. “Just, you know, keep everyone calm and relaxed.”
It was Aug. 14,, two weeks before America’s deadline to leave Afghanistan, and 48 hours before Kabul would fall to the Taliban. With the threat of imminent danger, the crew knew they were over capacity, but not over the weight limit.
“How would you describe the look in their eyes?” Johnson said of the Afghan refugees.
“There was a look of fear, desperation, some a look of comfort,” Kut said.
Comfort was something co-pilot and Capt. Mark Lawson offered a mother, allowing her to wrap her child in a crew member’s jacket. A photo was taken and the jacket will soon have a place in the U.S. Air Force Museum.
“In that moment, a sign? Have any significance?” Johnson asked.
“I knew we were all going to be all right at that moment, because when you see a child sleeping, just something comes over you and you want to protect it,” Lawson said.
“You’re behind the controls, about to take off from Kabul. What’s going through your mind, other than the mission?” Johnson asked.
“The fact we are able to bring them back here so that they could get that sense of freedom, get an education, watching those kids come over here and play with a soccer ball, and have those abilities to be something and do whatever they want to do with their lives. It was an incredible feeling for all of us,” Kut said.
The crew doesn’t know where the 640 adults and 183 children are today.
The image, which was seen around the world, will serve as proof of the flight to freedom that they so bravely provided, and the faith the refugees had in the soldiers’ ability to complete the mission.
“They could see the American flag on the tail of this aircraft. They knew that meant hope, that meant that we could get them to safety. They’re like, all right, they can take care of us, and so we did,” Lawson said.
“This is your photo. Did you realize the significance of the record that you were creating by taking this?” Johnson asked.
“No, I had no idea at the time. Originally, I think I just took it for proof, because nobody would actually believe that that happened,” Triola said.
The crew that Johnson spoke to flew back to Afghanistan the very next day to complete another mission.
This story first appeared on Oct. 11, 2021.