The five soldiers in the Stryker were checking out an unfamiliar section of Baghdad when the bomb blew up just as they drove by a fortress-like monument. After the boom came smoke, the smell of battery acid — and then the screams.
The blast forced the metal body of the eight-wheeled armored vehicle to peel in on itself, trapping two Army men who had been sitting in the middle. One took shrapnel to his leg. The other, Sgt. Randy Johnson, was slumped over.
The platoon medic quickly ran out of gauze trying to bandage all of Johnson's wounds, one of the soldiers recalled. They thought he must be beyond saving when he suddenly came to and frantically pulled one of them close.
"Don't let me die," he said, one of the survivors remembers.
Then, as the medic struggled to put in an IV, Johnson faded away. The married father of two — who had told his buddies all he wanted to do was finish up his second tour in Iraq and take his kids to Disney — was gone.
Now, almost eight years later, a British cabbie has been convicted of murder over Johnson's death on Sept. 27, 2007 — linked to a bomb-making team by a fingerprint.
Anis Abid Sardar, 38, was found guilty Thursday in a London courtroom where prosecutors described how he traveled to Syria to make bombs that were then planted on the road to the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
After painstaking forensic analysis, the FBI's Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center identified Sardar's fingerprints were found on two explosive devices retrieved in Iraq; a fingerprint from someone else on the same bomb-making team was found on the one that killed Johnson, prosecutors said.
The jury deliberated 11 hours before finding him guilty. He will be sentenced later.
"I hope they nail his ass to the wall and burn the wall down," Luke Stinson, one of the soldiers who tried to save Johnson's life, told NBC News.
"I wish they had the death penalty over there, because this guy deserves it."
For Johnson's family and fellow soldiers, the trial represented a rare opportunity — to see someone accused of direct involvement in a serviceman's death face justice in a civilian court.
"I'm really relieved but for us it doesn't change anything. We still lost Randy," Johnson's widow, Claudia Williams, told NBC News after she learned of the verdict.
Johnson grew up in a tough section of Washington, D.C., and the military was his ticket off the mean streets. He shuttled between bases in Germany, where he met Claudia, and the U.S. He was deployed to Bosnia and Kosovo and did a tour in Iraq in 2003.
He was six months into his second Iraq deployment when he was killed.
"It's not a place he wanted to go back to," said Williams, who lives in Colorado with their two children and her second husband. "But it was his duty. He was a passionate soldier and that's what he needed to do."
The day he died, Johnson and his platoon were on patrol in Baghdad, and his Stryker was the last in the convoy.
"The lieutenant wanted to go and check out a new area we were supposed to be operating in," said one of them, who asked that his name be withheld because of the sensitive work he now does in the military. "There was a big monument there, like a ziggurat, and we had never been up that close to it."
When the bomb went off, that soldier thought the vehicle had just hit a rock or a hole. The explosion hurled him out of the back hatch, and when he came to, he said, he heard someone screaming, "My leg! My leg!"
He and the medic tried to crawl through the Stryker to find the others, "but there was smoke and battery acid spraying everywhere," he recalled.
He went around the outside and saw one man's right pants leg was covered in blood. He cut open the fabric and put on a tourniquet and then went to help the medic try to lift out Johnson, who took the brunt of the blast.
"He wasn't breathing and he wasn't talking," he said.
"I'm holding him in my arms and I'm trying to talk to him, and I'm telling the medic we need a medevac...and then a scary thing happened. He just came to, came back alive and he was pulling me close to him...telling me, 'Don't let me die.'
"The medic tried to give him the IV but his veins were flat," he added. "Then from him pulling me to him, he just let go and that was it."
"It's always in my head no matter how much time passes"
For weeks after, the soldier said, he couldn't put his hands close to his face because he imagined they still smelled like blood.
But eventually, he was deemed fit for duty, returned to Iraq and finished out the tour. He and the others got memorial bracelets to mark Johnson's sacrifice.
"It's always in my head no matter how much time passes," the driver of the Stryker said.
When the soldiers got calls some months back from Army officials telling them an arrest had been made and their testimony might be needed, they were shocked.
"I thought it was a joke," the soldier who held Johnson in his arms said. "I've been in the Army almost 10 years and I've never heard of anything where they capture the person and they're tried in criminal court."
He was disappointed he couldn't attend the trial. Williams, on the other hand, said she turned down the chance to go.
"I didn't want to take my boys through the whole thing again," she explained.
Aaron was barely 2 and Devon was 5 when their dad was killed. They don't speak much about it, but there are pictures of him in the house in Colorado and they leave a message on his memorial guestbook on his birthday every year.
"We don't want to talk about it a lot," Williams said. Her voice cracked and she added, "But he's always in our hearts."