The US Air Force is investigating the deaths of Afghan civilians in connection with the chaotic departure of a C-17 aircraft from Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport on Monday, which was captured in a graphic video that showed people falling from the plane as it took off.
The US military has been scrambling to evacuate thousands of Afghans and Americans from Kabul since the Taliban took control of the country on Sunday. Satellite images showed panicked crowds breaching the airport's tarmac. One photo of another C-17 packed with between 700 and 800 civilians went viral.
The scene at the airport turned deadly on Monday. According to a video shared by the Asvaka News Agency, three men clinging to the C-17 fell to the ground and were killed. The remains of another person were discovered in the plane's wheel well when the aircraft landed in Qatar that same day. According to Reuters, at least two additional people died at the Kabul airport on Monday, and US troops reportedly fired in the air to scatter crowds in some instances.
"Safety officials are doing due diligence to better understand how events unfolded and ensure the continued safety of current and future flight ops as we support the mission in Afghanistan," a US Air Force statement said on Tuesday.
The Air Force confirmed in the statement that the C-17 Globemaster III landed at Kabul's airport to deliver equipment on Monday in support of the evacuation of Afghan and American civilians.
Before the crew could offload the cargo, the aircraft became surrounded by a stampede of people who had broken the airport's barriers.
"Faced with a rapidly deteriorating security situation around the aircraft, the C-17 crew decided to depart the airfield as quickly as possible," the Air Force said.
The Air Force Office of Special Investigations is currently reviewing the departure and the deaths of civilians in the incident, according to the agency, which expressed condolences to the families of the deceased.
"Alongside our joint force, interagency and international partners, the U.S. Air Force remains laser-focused on maintaining security at [Hamid Karzai International Airport] to prevent a situation like this from happening again as we safely process Afghan civilians seeking to depart the country," the Air Force said.
The US Defense Department stalled military and commercial flights to clear the tarmac of civilians rushing the area, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Monday. Regular airport operations resumed later that day.
An additional 5,000 US troops have been deployed to Kabul to help manage the airport so American citizens and Afghans can depart the country safely, officials have said.
News and social media footage will be reviewed as part of the investigation. According to Asvaka, people clinging to the aircraft fell to the ground near the Khair Khana area of Kabul, where their bodies were collected by local residents.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan confirmed on Tuesday that President Joe Biden had seen the "heartbreaking" images of people desperately clinging to the C-17 and falling to their deaths.
"The president, as he said in his remarks yesterday, has seen ... these images are heartbreaking," Sullivan told reporters at a State Department briefing. "And as I've said repeatedly today, the human toll of the end of this conflict in this way is real and it's raw and it's hard for any of us. You guys are journalists, I work in government, but, you know, we're also people, and this is tough stuff."
Sullivan declined to comment on whether US troops would remain in Afghanistan if Americans and Afghan allies aren't evacuated by the Aug. 31 deadline.
"I’m going to stay focused on the task at hand, which is getting as many people out as rapidly as possible, and we will take that day by day," he said.