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Marines restore order from chaos at gas station

18 Feb 2007 | Lance Cpl. Christopher Zahn

Marines from 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment recently defused a potentially explosive situation after a crowd of over 300 Iraqi civilians gathered at a local gas station.

The volatile crowd, many of them lined up outside the gate from the previous night, swarmed the gas station as soon as it opened; some were there to purchase the scarce liquid, others were there to steal it.  As the situation began to get out of hand, a squad from Weapons Company, 3/6, was called in from a nearby firm base to assess the situation.

“We showed up and there were probably 50 cars waiting to get in line at the gas station,” said Lance Cpl. Shaun D. Erwin, 24, from Canton, Mich. “People were pushing cars, moving them however they could move them. By the time we got to the gas station the entire inside was just full of people. We were ridiculously outnumbered.”

The Marines quickly waded into the crowd despite facing significant risk if the situation turned hostile, showing incredible restraint and patience.  They knew the crowd had to be swiftly controlled before the situation got any worse. They also knew any violence could be disastrous for both sides.

“It was important not to use violence, because there were kids and women everywhere,” added Erwin, a 2000 graduate of North Canton High School. “We weren’t down there to get physical with the local Iraqi people, or anything like that. The last thing we wanted to do was go down there and make things worse, especially being outnumbered the way that we were.”

Once inside the station the Marines moved amongst the crowd, nudging people aside as they searched for the people who had initiated the chaos.

“The first thing we did was find the owner and find out what was going on,” added Erwin. “Why there was chaos, and why all these people were coming out of nowhere. He told us that people were stealing his gas. He just got a shipment in, which doesn’t happen very often. People were stealing his gas and he asked for our help.”

With a firm grasp of situation the squad swiftly decided upon a course of action. All the people had to be removed from the fenced-in perimeter of the station to prevent any more gas from being stolen. Another squad had been dispatched to help, forcing their way through the crowd to link up with their fellow warriors. Even more Marines were on the way but hadn’t arrived yet.

“As soon as we finished talking to the owner, another section showed up with a couple more guys, so there might have been 25 of us,” said Erwin. “We cleared out the entire gas station of the approximately 300 to 350 people and we pushed them outside of the perimeter where there was a fence.”

With the gasoline safe from theft, the Marines turned their attention to dealing with the increasingly anxious crowd. As Iraqis packed the gate, each attempting to get their gas first, more Marines arrived. The increased manpower allowed the Marines to force the civilians back from the gate and formed into lines. The crowd began to thin considerably as Iraqis who were looking for a free fill up realized it wasn’t going to happen on the Marines' watch.

To prevent the gas from getting into the wrong hands, the owners had a list of who was authorized to buy gas.  Civilians were let past the gate in small groups, where they were quickly searched for any weapons and then lined up by the pumps. Once the crowd noticed that every person and vehicle was being thoroughly searched, those who were afraid or had something to hide quickly left the area.

“Once we restored order things calmed down,” said Erwin. “Especially when we began checking names, doing security checks on people, and checking everything out to make sure it was all safe. As soon as we restored the internal security of the gas station everything calmed down.”

With the crowd placated, the line went slowly and smoothly. Eventually the call was made to pull the Marines back and turn control back to the owner. As they patrolled back to their base, the Marines had a renewed sense of accomplishment. They had faced a situation many had never trained for and handled it professionally, defusing the situation and restored order from chaos.

“It was the first time I was ever involved in any unorganized event like that,” said Cpl. Robert F. Toth, 21, from Allentown, Pa. “This is my third deployment and the first time I was ever called for riot control. It was a different experience. It’s not like a regular patrol where you go out and talk to people. You’re going out there and the people are already there, there’s already a big crowd, and you have to take control of the situation.”

It all started with quick decision-making from the initial 11 Marines on the scene. They were the ones who looked a crowd of over 300 angry people in the eye and didn’t blink. By controlling the situation with a calm and authoritative presence manner, and ensuring the fuel was issued in a legitimate fashion, they proved to the Iraqi people they are there to help, not harm them.