CAMP BABYLON, Iraq -- A Navy corpsman and Marine helped save the lives of 17 Iraqi workers after a truck they were riding in crashed into an irrigation canal.
Seven Iraqis died in the accident.
Working with a beautification team that had been removing trash from public sites in the historic city, two members of 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, Petty Officer 3rd Class David Cambray, a corpsman, and Pfc. Mike Rodriguez were finishing work for the day when the accident occurred.
"We had just finished cleaning for the day and were getting ready to go dump the trash," said Cambray, a resident of Middletown, R.I.
According to Cambray, he and Rodriguez, who was unavailable for comment, were in the cab of the truck along with a supervisor and the driver. There were 24 workers were sitting in the back of the truck, along with equipment.
"We were all very relaxed, listening to music, but there was no horseplay or anything like that," Cambray said.
While passing a farmer's field, the truck suddenly lurched to the right and tipped into the canal. According to Cambray, some of the workers later reported they had felt a strange vibration in the truck and it felt like one of the wheels had locked up. The cause of the accident is under investigation.
"It all happened so fast," Cambray said. "I thought I was going to die. I could feel people near me. I kept telling myself to relax. I remember feeling the window all cracked, but not really broken out."
Finding a hole, Cambray swam out and jumped on the side of the truck, which was the only section not underwater.
"When I got up there, I saw Mason (the captain of the workers) pull out Rodriguez, but the sling on his weapon caught his leg and he had to cut himself free," Cambray said. "I saw a worker on the truck screaming for his brother, still stuck in there. The truck was on its side in the water, and most of the people were pinned in the mud by the wheelbarrows and rakes they had used earlier in the day. I remember seeing the villagers on the roadside just watching. It seemed like no one would help."
Some of the workers opened the doors and grabbed two people who quickly regained consciousness. A 12 year-old boy, Mustafa, was the last to be pulled out.
"I was shouting 'Kef! Anna tabib!' Stop, I'm a doctor," Cambray said. "They were holding the workers upside-down, shaking them, trying to get the water out of their lungs."
Using abdominal thrusts on Mustafa, Cambray told Rodriguez how to perform CPR on another worker. When foam escaped from the worker's mouth, Rodriguez stopped and helped Cambray with Mustafa.
"I was scared, crying and praying," Cambray said. "I didn't think the kid would live. When I opened his eyes, it was like looking at a lifeless body. We finally got him breathing again and got him into one of the villager's trucks."
Rodriguez stayed to help recover more bodies while Cambray and the driver headed for battalion headquarters, which was almost a 30-minute drive.
"I thought we were going to get in another accident, we were going so fast," he said.
Finally arriving at the battalion's aid station, Mustafa was given immediate attention and would fully recover.
The corpsman said it's unimaginable how innocent lives ended so suddenly.
"I had a lot of different emotions going on at the time," Cambray said. "Those kids, we worked with, danced with, ate with -- I called them my friends. It's hard. I can't stop thinking about it. Some of them had so much life in them. They had families and friends that will never get to see them again or hear them laugh. I'll miss them."