But few others were escaping the firestorm. About a mile to the north, Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Uhl of Bellwood, commander of the convoy, felt helpless.
In the lead truck in the convoy, he and his driver had gotten through unscathed. They secured an evacuation zone and called in helicopters for the wounded.
As the long minutes ticked away, Uhl was desperately trying to learn what was happening back there. Though it would have gone against his training, he was about to go back into the kill zone.
A woman’s voice over the radio told him not to do it.
“We’re coming out,” she said.
It was Beck, stuck in the middle of the convoy.
Some would later be surprised that the soft-spoken Beck, the only woman in the squad, would coolly take charge in the midst of mayhem.
But the former high school basketball standout had always been one to take care of what needed to be done. Somehow, she knew, the convoy needed to get moving.
Becoming the de facto platoon commander, she worked to untangle the mass of trucks, get them rolling and figure out what was happening ahead.
“Ricketts, can you hear me?” she called into the radio. “Has anyone heard from Ricketts and DeLancey?”
She couldn’t help thinking they were dead.
In fact, DeLancey and Ricketts, still dazed after the rocket blast, were only beginning to realize they were still alive.
They heard Beck’s voice but had no idea where it was coming from, their radio now lost in the wreckage of their truck. Both were sure the end was near.
Looking back on that foggy moment, DeLancey still doesn’t know what came over him – perhaps a burst of adrenaline or some primitive instinct to survive. But in a profanity-laced tirade, he decided he’d go down fighting.
He kicked out what was left of the windshield, leaned over the hood with a light machine gun and raked the berm from where the insurgents were firing.
He fired a 200-round drum. After Ricketts, pinned beneath the dash, was able to use a free arm to shove another drum across the truck floor, DeLancey reloaded and fired again.
Official reports credit DeLancey with killing or wounding two to five insurgents, but it’s based mostly on conjecture. What is known is the heavy fire coming from the berm was suppressed, taking heat off the stalled convoy.
About that time, MPs from the Kentucky National Guard rode in like the cavalry in an old Hollywood western.
Ten guardsmen from Kentucky’s 617th Military Police unit aboard three guntrucks had been shadowing the southbound convoy from a distance. They now moved up to join the fight.
Their impact on the battle was immediate. It’s probably no coincidence that a home movie of the ambush shot by an insurgent suddenly goes black just after the MPs rolled into the frame, their big turret guns thundering.
The Kentuckians pulled off the highway onto a side road perpendicular to the highway, out-flanking the insurgents’ main position. Most of the MPs dismounted and took refuge along a berm, engaging the insurgents in a fierce gun battle. Three Kentuckians quickly were wounded.
“It was crazy,” Kentucky Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester later told a reporter. “It was basically kill or be killed.”
With most of the fire now off the convoy, Beck led a line of trucks forward, stopping after about 100 yards to inspect the smoking cab of Ricketts’ truck.
She found DeLancey sitting on the ground beside a wheel. Ron Hart, a civilian contractor and Army veteran, moments earlier had relieved the wounded soldier of his machine gun and was laying down bursts of suppressive fire.
Telling the bloodied and scared DeLancey to climb into her truck, Beck ran to the mangled cab and anxiously peered inside. She later called it the scariest moment of her life.
Ricketts was lying in the cab, face to the floor.
Then he raised his head and looked directly at her. She may have been as happy to see him as he was her.
Ricketts told her he was hopelessly stuck, but she cursed at him and said she didn’t care.
“There’s no way we’re leaving you here,” she yelled.
She grabbed his arm. “On the count of three, you push and I’ll pull,” she said. “Do it for me and yourself. You’re going to be OK.”
It took all the strength she had, but Beck hauled the 205-pound Ricketts free of the wreckage and down to the road.
Hart helped her carry him to her truck. But after opening the door, Beck quickly realized there was nowhere to put him. Three people were already jammed in the lone passenger seat: her co-driver, the wounded DeLancey and a wounded civilian driver.
She later would agonize over whether she did the right thing, whether she should have found another way to get Ricketts out. But in the heat of the moment her only thought was to get on the radio to have the next Guard truck back pick him up.
She told Ricketts to take cover under the trailer of Hart’s truck and left him in the care of Hart, who continued to fire.
Remounting her truck, she revved the engine and led a small convoy out of the kill zone.
Lying across the laps of Beck and her co-driver, DeLancey burst into tears as they raced up the road.
“It was fear, happiness, relief – everything,” he said later. “I almost died, and I knew I probably wasn’t going to die anymore.”
Back at the rear of the Nebraska convoy, Spc. Michael Sharples of Fullerton was practically begging civilian contractors hiding in a ditch to get back in their trucks.
He ran to Spc. Joshua Birkel of Columbus, in the final truck in the convoy. We have to get these guys moving, he said.
That’s when they heard Beck’s reports that Ricketts was in the road ahead.
Under fire from the right, Birkel and Sharples ran more than 300 yards, found Ricketts and loaded him in the passenger seat of Hart’s truck.
Finally, after 20 minutes in the heat of the kill zone, Ricketts was on his way to safety.