As the sole American journalist present at the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in late December, Getty Images’ senior staff photographer John Moore was interviewed extensively by international media following the event. What follows, however, is the only account that he has written about that day:
She came out waving and smiling and standing up through the sun roof of her armoured car. I couldn’t believe it then and I still can’t today.
I was actually walking away at the time. The campaign rally had finished and I had squeezed through the single narrow gate of the fenced park. I wanted to get ahead of the throngs of Benazir Bhutto supporters. But when I heard a cheer erupt, I turned around, and there she was.
I pushed my way back 50 yards through the frenzied mob of devotees. Shoving past people to get close to her vehicle. I shot 15 frames just in front of her car, photos of her waving goodbye to her supporters.
As the former prime minister’s car surged forward, I pushed out of the way, ahead of her vehicle. I needed to adjust my camera. In the melee, the shutter setting had been bumped down to 1/15th and 1/8th of a second, giving the photos an unintended impressionistic look.
I turned on my flash, but just before resetting the lens, I turned and glanced back at her car.
Just then I heard three shots, which sounded as if they were fired from close to her car. I watched her drop down through the sunroof, and I raised my camera, my finger pressed down on the shutter release.
Just as the camera came up in front of my face, the bomb went off.
The suicide bomber had set off his charge behind her car. My camera caught the blast itself and the horrible debris it spewed into the air: pieces of car, chunks of cement, human flesh. The boom was deafening, but her car – and the bodies of her supporters – shielded me from the force of the blast. I was about 20 yards from the explosion, maybe less.
The bomb triggered an immediate stampede of survivors and I was momentarily swept up in the exodus. I shot a blur of people as I too got pushed back in the wave of panic.
As the crowd fled behind me, and Bhutto’s damaged vehicle sped past, a tableau of carnage spread out before my lens. Corpses – some of them in pieces – littered the bloody ground. Wounded survivors, some shrieking, most silent, looked up from the ground, tryimg to make sense of the flash that had just changed their lives forever.
A man in a tan suit, one of his pant legs blown off, sat straightening his hair before being carried away. Two police stood over a badly-wounded colleague, staring at him in disbelief. They didn’t seem to know what to do.
An anguished man in a brown jacked appeared just a minute after the blast, screaming, walking amidst the corpses and cradling the wounded survivors. I spent some time photographing him, but he never seemed to notice me. He was in total shock.
Other photographers who had gotten delayed by the fleeing crowds arrived on the scene. One later told me that he saw me hopping from place to place through the blood and body parts, watching my step. Much was too gruesome to photograph.
After a few minutes, ambulances began to arrive, sirens wailing and horns honking as they pushed through the crowd. The most badly injured were carried to the vehicles before the stretchers could even be brought out.
That day, just 18 seconds passed between my first photograph of Bhutto waving from her car and the bomb blast, followed by ten minutes or so of aftermath, the last images illuminated by the fading sunlight. Most of the photos were taken at a grainy 1600 ISO, including the most widely published pictures of the anguished man in the brown jacket.
Eventually, I thought to check my cell phone and there were half a dozen missed calls, mostly from my wife who was desperately trying to find out if I was okay.
I found my driver, who also narrowly escaped being injured, and we waded into rush hour traffic. It seemed incongruously normal, but the short drive home seemed to last forever. I distracted myself from the slow pace by looking through the day’s photos on the back of the camera, and wishing I’d done a better job.