NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – A New Jersey hero and his flight crew helped US troops end the war in Afghanistan.
CBS2’s Kristine Johnson recently spoke to them about what they were going through that day, and got exclusive access inside a military plane just like that from the Refugee Aid.
“Eight hundred people on your jet? Holy cow.”
You may not have heard that radio transmission, but you probably saw the now iconic photo aboard an Air Force C-17 aircraft. Afghan refugees were packed so tightly that no one changed during takeoff or landing.
“We are getting ready to carry out a normal mission, and it turned into something a little more meaningful by being able to do what you saw in the picture,” said Lieutenant Colonel Eric Kut.
READ MORE: Hundreds of evacuees from Afghanistan on their way to New York, Connecticut
Kut, a New Jersey native currently stationed at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, was the chief officer on the flight, which was part of Operation Allies Refuge, the largest non-combatant evacuation air in U.S. history.
The plane they put on board 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?” Asked Johnson.
“We did … It turned out to be 823,” Kut said.
“There was no limit that day. If it fits, it will be sent, ”Loadmaster Tech Sgt. Added Justin Triola.
See more –
Triola took the picture and made the critical call.
“I made sure this area was clear, made sure the edges were clear and that everyone was safe on board,” Triola said.
“I just want a visual. From here to there, a sea of Afghan refugees? Said Johnson.
“The hardest part was after I closed [was] trying to get back to the front, ”Triola said.
“Do you realize what an important moment that was?” Asked Johnson.
“Definitely not at the time, but when we left, it hit home after that,” Triola said.
READ MORE: Colorado Army Veteran & amp; Afghanistan’s interpreter will be reunited as neighbors
The staff Sgt. Derek Laurent clearly remembers the gentlemen behind the picture who helped with the language barrier.
“He saw our hand signals and asked everyone to sit down,” Laurent said. “Just so you know, keep everyone calm and relaxed.”
It was August 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 about the Afghan refugees.
“There was a look of fear, desperation, some a look of comfort,” Kut said.
READ MORE: Principal in Connecticut helps students flee Afghanistan
Comfort was something co-pilot and Captain Mark Lawson offered a mother so she could wrap her child in a crew member. A photo was taken and the jacket will soon fit in the US Air Force Museum.
“At that moment, a sign? Does it matter? Asked Johnson.
“I knew we would all be fine at that moment, because when you see a baby sleeping, something just comes over you and you want to protect it,” Lawson said.
“You are behind the controls and are taking off from Kabul. What goes through your mind other than the mission? Asked Johnson.
“The fact that we are able to bring them back here so they could have that feeling of freedom, get an education, see those kids come over here and play football and have those abilities to be something and do, what they want to do with their lives. It was an incredible feeling for all of us, ”said Kut.
READ MORE: Manhattan Restaurant owner reunited with wife, 3 children flying Afghanistan
The crew does not 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 gave, and the faith the refugees had in the ability of the soldiers to complete the mission.
“They could see the American flag on the tail of this plane. They knew it meant hope, it meant we could bring them to safety. They’re like, okay, they can take care of us, and we did, ”Lawson said.
“This is your picture. Do you realize the significance of the record you made by taking this one?” Johnson asked.
“No, I had no idea then. Initially, I think I just took it as evidence because no one would actually think it 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 October 11, 2021.