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1 year later, more details emerge about the Americans killed in Kabul airport bombing

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

One year ago today, 13 service members and more than 100 Afghans died when a bomb exploded at the Kabul airport. Though the last days of the American evacuation were marked by chaos, new details are emerging about how U.S. Marines took it on themselves to rescue as many people as possible, including a group of young female Afghan skateboarders. Steve Walsh with KPBS in San Diego has the story.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hey. Stop short. Stop short.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: It's August 2021. Hundreds of Afghans crowd the Abbey Gate at the airport in Kabul, desperate for a way to get out as the Taliban takes over the city. The Afghans are forced into a canal as they press to get inside.

ANDRES RODRIGUEZ: It smells of desperation - right? - the whole scene. You know, it's dirty sewage run off. And it's just filthy. And they're just trying to get out.

WALSH: Marine Captain Andres Rodriguez is part of security at the gate. Scores of Marines have been rushed from Jordan just days before the Americans were scheduled to leave Afghanistan after 20 years. Several units decide to help Afghans desperate to flee.

RODRIGUEZ: It just devolved quickly where it's like, well, if no one else is going to do it, the Marines of 2-1 are going to do it. They're just going to - they're going to screen. They're going to help people. They're going to provide aid. They're going to do everything that they're being asked of.

WALSH: Back in the U.S., Marine vet Jeff Phaneuf is getting calls and texts from Rodriguez and other Marines he knows at Abbey Gate, asking his help locating paperwork for people outside the airport. Phaneuf tweets, his advice for getting into the airport. And then his phone starts to ring.

JEFF PHANEUF: I found myself having to ask again and again those Marines, hey, can you go out into the crowd and try and find so-and-so? I was fielding requests from everyone, from, you know, local Afghans whose husband or wife was trying to get through the crowd to colonels at the Pentagon who somehow got my phone number.

CORI SHEPHERD STERN: I was like crying, texting, begging the girls to stay at the gate, that I would - we would figure it out. We would get them through.

WALSH: Cori Shepherd Stern is a film producer from San Diego. In the days before the bombing a year ago, she began searching how to get a group of Afghans out who had been educating young girls there using skateboarding.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SKATEISTAN")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's safe here for girls to learn.

WALSH: The women gained global fame after being featured in the Oscar-winning short film about "Skateistan." Stern wasn't involved in that film, but the group reached out to her. Many of the Afghan organizers felt that it was time for their families to leave, including Zainab Hussaini, who now lives in the United States.

ZAINAB HUSSAINI: When I was at work, I heard the Taliban entered to the city and everything was just changed. And me and my husband decided to leave the country.

WALSH: Hussaini is speaking publicly for the first time about their experience then. She made it through the airport gate once, but was turned back when there was no room on an Australian flight. The next day she took a red umbrella, a signal for the Marines to spot her in the crowd.

HUSSAINI: Whoever entered into the airport was safe. It was under the control of the U.S. government. And it was like guaranteeing your life.

WALSH: Back in the U.S., Cori Shephard Stern and Jeff Phaneuf were celebrating getting one last group through the airport when news came that 13 troops and more than 100 Afghans died in an explosion outside the airport.

STERN: And then when the bomb went off at Abbey Gate and just this terrible - you could feel this, like, empty echoing canyon of void just of, like, everyone terrified about what it meant for the people that had just helped us do this incredible thing.

WALSH: That evening, Alicia Lopez, the mother of Corporal Hunter Lopez, was coming back to their home in Indio, Calif., when she saw two Marines in a white truck.

ALICIA LOPEZ: I pulled into my driveway and they asked me if I was Hunter's mom.

HERMAN LOPEZ: Hard to see now, but originally under here were a bunch of letters that we had set aside from Hunter when...

WALSH: Herman and Alicia Lopez's home has become a shrine to their 22-year-old son, Hunter, who was killed in the bombing. They're still trying to understand what happened to their son that day.

LOPEZ: Hunter and some of his brothers and sisters were able to, you know, do great acts in their last few minutes on this earth. But, you know, you, of course, wish that they were here with you.

WALSH: Strangers sent artwork, including a painting of Hunter carrying a child made from pictures they found on Hunter's social media. Hunter told them some of what he saw.

LOPEZ: I know he understood the seriousness of what was going on, the despair in the hearts and the minds of a lot of the people that were trying to get out and get their families out.

A LOPEZ: The desperation of the parents.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

WALSH: They're just now finding out more about those final moments, which, a year later, give them some comfort and solace. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Walsh