The United States military transport aircraft shown in a now-iconic photograph jam-packed with Afghans fleeing the country’s Taliban takeover held a record 823 passengers, the Pentagon has said.
The US military’s Air Mobility Command said that the original estimate of 640 Afghans, seated on the hard floor of the giant C-17 Globemaster III — already more than double the normal capacity — omitted children passengers.
The count was made based on the number of seats filled on the buses delivering the passengers to the C-17 and left out all the children seated on laps, it said on Twitter.
Ultimately, the aircraft, which was headed to Qatar, “safely transported 823 Afghan citizens from Hamid Karzai International Airport Aug. 15, 2021. This is a record for this aircraft,” it said.
The command did not say how many crew were on the flight.
According to the publication Defense One, the pressure of Afghans trying to leave on Sunday forced the crew to make the call on departing, even though the passengers were not manifested.
“We have women and children and people’s lives at stake, it’s not about capacity or rules and regulations — it’s about the training and the directives that we were able to handle to make sure we could safely and effectively get that many people out,” Lieutenant Colonel Eric Kut, who was mission commander for the flight, told the journal.
The transports are typically used for heavy equipment or a few hundred troops carrying large packs of their own weapons and belongings.
The C-17 Globemaster III, a military transport aircraft that has been operated by the US and its allies for some 30 years, is reportedly designed to carry some 150 soldiers in comfort and 171,000 pounds of cargo.
(In Israel’s 36-hour Operation Solomon airlift of over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa in 1991, one El Al 747 carried a world-record 1,000-plus passengers. The Guinness Book of Records put the figure at 1,088, including two babies born en route to Ben Gurion Airport.)
Six days after the Taliban swept to power, the flow of people trying to flee continued to overwhelm the international community.
Roads leading to Kabul airport were choked with traffic. Families hoping for a miracle escape crowded between the barbed-wire surrounds of an unofficial no man’s land separating the Taliban from US troops and remnants of an Afghan special forces brigade helping them.
Video of a US soldier lifting a baby over a wall at Kabul airport offered the latest imagery of the utter despair, following horror footage of people hanging onto the outside of departing planes.
“Please, please, please help me… where should I go, what should I do,” one man, who said he worked for the US embassy in the mid-2000s, wrote on a WhatsApp group for people to share information on how to get out.
Thousands of US soldiers are at the airport trying to shepherd foreigners and Afghans onto flights, but US President Joe Biden admitted the troop presence offered no guarantees of safe passage.
“This is one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history,” he said.
“I cannot promise what the final outcome will be, or… that it will be without risk of loss.”
About 13,000 people have left on American military aircraft, the White House said. Thousands more have fled on other foreign military flights.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.