GWEN IFILL: First tonight, we go to the scene of yesterday's attack. I spoke earlier today with Bill Nemitz, a reporter with the Portland, Maine Press Herald. He is embedded with the 133rd engineer battalion of the Maine Army National Guard in Mosul.
Bill Nemitz, welcome. You wrote today about an interview you had with Brig. Gen. Carter Hammond which he described an explosive device filled with pellets. And we heard at the Pentagon today that they believe there was a suicide bomber involved in this attack. Tell us what you know.
BILL NEMITZ: Well, Gwen, right now the speculation is leaning very heavily towards the suicide bomber. There's been a lot of talk throughout the base today of what could have caused it. But the more time goes on that seems to be the rumor at least that is taking hold.
It is supported by some eyewitness evidence of the conditions inside the dining facility right after the explosion, including perhaps most significantly the lack of a crater that might have been created had a substantial rocket penetrated the roof and detonated around the floor. There was no such crater. And that for one thing has some people speculating that it was a bomb that was carried in.
GWEN IFILL: Where were you yesterday when the explosion occurred?
BILL NEMITZ: I was in my CONEX barracks, which is part of the 133rd Engineer Battalion encampment here where I'm embedded -- down the hill from the dining facility a little less than a quarter of a mile. A photographer and I were actually getting ready to go to lunch. We had put it off providentially, I guess, by 20 minutes to half an hour. And I was sitting on a chair putting on my boots getting ready to head up here when the explosion hit.
Even from that distance it was enough to lift me out of my chair. And having experienced some of the mortar attacks that typically come in here, mostly 60-millimeter mortars fired from outside the perimeter, it was immediately apparent that this was something much, much bigger. And we along with a number of soldiers ran out and looked up at the dining facility and saw the white plume of smoke rising from the roof. We saw some soldiers running down the hill screaming for CLS-trained soldiers, that's Combat Life Support trained soldiers. And once you heard that call go out, we knew that this was the mass casualty that everybody had feared.
GWEN IFILL: I gather this was pretty much... this pretty much took all of you by surprise. You had no reason to expect something like this. Did you then rush to help or did you then pull out your notebook and begin to take notes? What happened?
BILL NEMITZ: (Laughs) Well, we did run up the hill along with everyone else. As I arrived, the triage was beginning to take shape right outside the dining facility. Soldiers as well as some of the civilian contractors were coming from every direction. It was interesting because as you looked at it and watched it unfold, you might think it was kind of an organized or maybe even not organized chaos.
I had had the opportunity, however, a number of months ago during another trip here to sit down with the battalion's chief medical officer. One of his duties was to come up with a mass casualty plan for this exact scenario, if the dinning facility were hit during a peak meal period. Having read that plan last spring and understood exactly how he wanted this to unfold and how the troops had drilled over and over again on this, it was apparent to me that they were pretty much performing exactly to plan. It was truly amazing.
GWEN IFILL: Did the troops you've been talking to, have they been worried at all about their own security?
BILL NEMITZ: Well, I guess anyone in Iraq is worried about their own security. But this is a very heavily fortified base, as all of them are right now, particularly in Mosul since it's become more of a hot spot after Fallujah, so there's the constant concern there.
If there's one thing that does stand out however in my travels here, it has been these large, cavernous, kind of hangar-like soft-shell buildings that were put up because they're easy to erect and they can be erected quickly to house the sudden influx of soldiers; the downside being of course, that they are these metal flames with these soft canvas-like skins, making them very easy targets for what have, up until now, been mortar and rocket attacks. I think that a lot of soldiers felt most insecure when they gathered in large numbers inside these facilities because they knew that their vulnerability was at its highest at that point.
GWEN IFILL: I have to ask you also, is the security around the perimeter such that you can imagine someone could be able to get through security as this person apparently did and commit a suicide bombing?
BILL NEMITZ: I don't think so. I think that... I've gone in and out on convoys and through the multiple check systems and gates and having seen the guard posts that are erected along the perimeters here, it's not the kind of place where one could just waltz in. I think if this theory about a suicide bomber does bear out, my guess is that it's going to be tied to probably one of two sources.
There are a number of Iraqi civilians who are hired to... who have been hired over the months to perform various tasks around the base: Provide water, do some latrine servicing and things like that. At times for this battalion that group numbered as many as 50 Iraqis who were here each day during their work. On this trip the first thing I noticed is that they were all gone because their families have been threatened and they were told if they continued to work here, their families would be killed. So they had vanished.
And the other element that is under consideration now is a group of Iraqi National Guard soldiers who are also based here. They don't have a lot to do with the American soldiers. They're encamped in a different part of the base. But the one place they all do come together is at the dining facility. So that... as we look at the speculation here today, I would say some of it is turning in that direction as well.
GWEN IFILL: Bill Nemitz of the Portland Press Herald, thank you so much.
BILL NEMITZ: Okay, Gwen.