Pentagon Officials Gleaned Valuable Lessons From 2001 Attack
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 8, 2005 For the chief of the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on his charge is still a vivid memory.
Pentagon Force Protection Agency Chief John Jester was in the building when it was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. Then, his 320 personnel were part of the Defense Protective Force. Soon after the attacks the force transformed into a defense agency with 870 personnel much better equipped to handle a variety of threats against the Pentagon and its work force. Photo from Pentagon Channel video
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"My first thought that day was, 'No. Not here.' That was the thing in my mind, 'It can't be happening here,'" John Jester said from his Pentagon office during an interview with the Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service.
"We had two big challenges that day," said Jester, who was in the building when an American Airlines Boeing 757 hit. "One was to try to rescue people because there were people who were in that area who could not see how to get out."
The smoke resulting from the explosion and fireballs that rolled down the nearby hallways when the plane impacted was so thick and dark that people couldn't find the exits. There are now reflective strips at ground level that indicate how to find exits.
"The second thing is we had to secure the building," he said. "We ... had a situation where we had a building that was broken open. We had information and classified materials, safes and things, all around."
There were more than 300 safes containing classified material in the section of the building that was hit. They were eventually opened with hydraulic cutting tools typically used to free people from vehicle accidents and returned to their respective departments.
The sheer number of volunteers that showed up had to be handled, as well. Their help was appreciated in the immediate aftermath, but as time went on, Jester said there were too many.
"Everybody had a good heart about wanting to help out, but at some point, we had to ... put restrictions on the crash site," he said.
The first and foremost lesson learned that day was: "Don't think it won't happen on your watch," Jester said.
He now anticipates worst-case scenarios, another lesson gleaned from that tragic day, he said. "Use your imagination about what could happen to you," Jester said.
The lessons of that day on which 184 people died resulted in the Pentagon Force Protection Agency. The organization was previously known as the Defense Protective Service and had a total of 320 people, Jester said. The PFPA, a new defense agency since the attacks, is made up of 870 personnel, many former military, who are part of a "very robust anti-terrorism force protection team."
Officials realized quickly that day that just over 300 personnel could not effectively secure such a large facility while simultaneously evacuating victims. The force now has a much more visible presence inside and out of the building, is trained in countersurveillance, and has many more resources at its disposal, Jester said.
"It's a bigger organization that has a lot more capabilities to deal with all kinds of threats that could be directed toward this facility," he said. Those threats include potential biological, chemical or radiological attacks.
The sheer number of riders that passes through the Pentagon Metro station -- more than 25,000 a day, Jester said -- is cause for concern. But PFPA officers and bomb dogs, respectively, keep their eyes open and their noses to the ground. PFPA officers are also being trained to handle suicide bombers.
While the scenario of a large commercial plane being used to attack the facility is all too real, Jester said that it was not considered a realistic threat before Sept. 11.
"In October 2000, we'd actually had an exercise, ... a situation where a small plane hit the building, because we're right in the flight path of (Ronald Reagan Washington) National Airport," he said, adding that the prospect of a large commercial plane being used as a bomb had not been a concern.
Anticipated scenarios are often played out in training exercises with nearby Arlington County, Va., first responders, Jester said. He added that the exercises help all coordinate with one another and give them a chance to get to know each other. Familiarity equals speed in the middle of a crisis, Jester said, adding that it's not a matter of "if," but "when" this training will pay off.
"We are a target," he said. "We're one of the symbols for the Department of Defense. We're the ones leading the effort in the war on terrorism overseas."
Renovations to the portion of the building that was hit proved the value of new safety features. The plane plowed into a renovated portion of the building and blast windows near the section that collapsed stayed intact.
"There was one guy that was standing next to the window when the plane hit. He didn't get any injury," Jester said. "Down on the other side of the building, where those windows are regular old 1940s windows, they just blew in." Though the day was tragic, Jester said he has memories that hearten him, as well.
"The most vivid memory was ... employees in the building, running to assist their fellow employees," he said. "People from all the services, every type of uniform (helping each other). ... And that was a very good scene."