On August 26, David Lavery was making his way towards a military transport aircraft parked on the tarmac at Kabul Airport in Afghanistan when a huge explosion rocked the outskirts of the city.
Seconds later, black smoke was billowing into the sky and dead and injured lay strewn on the streets that lined the perimeter of the airport.
Two suicide bombers had attacked the crowds trying to flee the country. Within minutes, a scene of desperation had turned into one of horror.
Mr Lavery, an ex-special forces soldier with the Canadian Army, told The National from his hotel room in Dubai that the sounds from that moment and the days leading up to it will remain with him for a long time to come.
“Days before that attack we knew the threat level was rising, we were expecting to be hit, people were on guard,” said Mr Lavery, known as “Canadian Dave”, who operates Raven Rae Consultancy, a private company that provides risk management support in Kabul and Dubai.
“As we were walking towards the plane and reached the rally point, we heard two big explosions in the distance followed by plumes of smoke.
“We knew it was in the direction of Abbey Gate, the entrance to the airport, the place where thousands of people were trying to escape on flights out of the country.
“Climbing up the ramp of the plane you could see the propellers were still going, there was this sense of urgency to ascend as quickly as possible.”
He said women were screaming, men were wailing and children and babies were being passed over barbed wire fences by parents to the safety of British and US soldiers.
People desperate to flee
As desperate Afghans tried to flee the Taliban takeover, Mr Lavery spent weeks helping organise safe passage out of the country for hundreds trying to escape to safety.
In late July, he was given a list of more than 1,000 applicants trying to seek refuge in Germany and Canada, as concern started to grow for the rapid advancement of Taliban insurgents.
Some were clients and others were sent to Mr Lavery by Canadian veterans of the Afghanistan war.
But after Kabul fell on August 15, scenes of panic ensued.
“I was still at my home in the city when we started seeing a lot of panicked people rushing to the airport. Everything was gauged towards the airport,” said Mr Lavery, 61, who is originally from Perth, in Ontario, Canada.
“We heard screams, gunshots. At that point we didn’t know if it was criminal activity or the Taliban. In desperate situations people do desperate things. It was so chaotic.
“I had my wife and son with me and I just kicked into survival mode, but I knew I had to get other people out too.”
Pulling people out of the sewage
On the same night the Taliban took over Kabul, Mr Lavery and his family moved to the Baron Hotel near the airport, where a security perimeter had been set up by US and British forces.
Mr Lavery and his team helped guide refugees to the airport, then they were tasked with pinpointing those with valid Canadian or German documentation before getting them seats on planes out of the country.
At one point he was handed a small baby by a desperate mother, while Mr Lavery's wife, Junping Zhang-Lavery, helped care for a child of 3, before he was reunited with his parents.
“We had to send our workers out into the crowds to pull people inside who had enough documentation where we might be able to help them,” he said.
“We couldn’t promise them anything but we tried to help as many people as we could.
“People were standing in sewage swamps begging for help. We would walk up and down and pull people out if they had a German or Canadian passport.
“We were concerned there was going to be a suicide hit but we had to keep going.”
During those few weeks, Mr Lavery said he survived on about “two hours of sleep a night, lost eight kilograms in weight and was left battered and bruised” by the ordeal.
He credits his wife Junping for keeping him together during their operation to get people to safety.
While he is now safe in Dubai, Mr Lavery is working relentlessly to get more people out of Kabul.
He said if he can go back to Afghanistan to get more people out, he will, and is trying to negotiate his safe passage with the Taliban.