Per Rumsfeld's Orders: The Briefing Will Go On
By Bob Whitmer
National Guard Bureau
WASHINGTON, Dec. 26, 2002 The events surrounding the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were a shock to the nation and the world. Never in the previous half century had there been a more catastrophic and monumental series of events that would challenge the fabric and courage of the American people.
Although I knew that as a nation we were not invulnerable to attack, I never dreamed I would witness an attack on our homeland or that I would wind up playing a part in history.
As the chief of broadcast engineering/operations of the Defense Department's press briefing room in the Pentagon, I supervise a team of Army broadcast technicians. We provide audio, video and multi-media support to the American people via the national news media during press briefings conducted by the defense secretary and other senior military leaders.
When you see a Pentagon briefing on CNN, Fox, or any of the broadcast networks, my staff and I are in a glass-enclosed control room ensuring that what you see and hear is top broadcast quality. If things look and sound good -- if you can hear the reporters' questions and the secretary's answers -- we have done our jobs well.
Like most Pentagon staffers, I knew a terrorist threat existed but was far too busy to give it much thought.
Sept. 11th was a day I will never forget. It began as a normal September day. The sky was blue and beautiful. I had been taking flying lessons in a Cessna 172 and was scheduled to take my first solo training flight that evening. I entered the building that morning looking at the blue sky, eagerly anticipating that flight.
At around 9:00 a.m., I was walking through the Press Office looking for a fresh cup of coffee. The office was eerily quiet. Walking past the desk of a duty officer, I saw CNN's live coverage of the World Trade Center billowing smoke.
I had learned a great deal in my flight training about airport operations and traffic patterns, and I knew the odds of a plane accidentally hitting one of the Twin Towers was very remote.
Later, in my office with my staff, we watched CNN's live coverage and we saw a brief glimpse of another plane followed by another explosion. It took a few seconds to fully process what we had just seen.
Now it was obvious that we were under a terrorist attack. I told my staff that I was sure we would be next. I threw a tape into a VHS machine and began recording CNN news.
By now, the Pentagon was buzzing. Our newly appointed spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke, had been called to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's office, and duty officers in the press office were called to an emergency operations center to discuss contingency plans. I was on the phone discussing the situation with Sgt. 1st Class Tim Magee of the Army Visual Information Center. Before we hung up, I told Magee to keep his head down, as we were probably next.
Being less than a mile from Washington's Reagan National Airport, I suspected that any attack on us would come from there. Since my location in the Pentagon is on the outside E-Ring and very near regular flight departure paths, I didn't like my odds.
I had no way of knowing that in the skies over Kentucky a situation was transpiring that would affect us within minutes. American Airlines Flight 77, a plane bound for Los Angeles, had departed Dulles International Airport earlier that morning. Over Kentucky, we all learned later, Al Qaeda terrorists hijacked the plane, turned it around and headed for Washington.
At 9:38 a.m., we felt a strong jolt and heard a loud noise. It sounded like a dumpster being hit by a baseball bat. We had been hit.
We would learn later that Flight 77 had approached the building from the northwest but was too high to hit the building. To lose altitude, the terrorist pilot passed directly over the Pentagon, circled Reagan Airport and re- approached the building, making impact from the southwest. The plane tore through an area occupied by Army and Navy personnel. Casualties from both services were high.
Had the plane hit the building on its original course from the northwest, my directorate would have been at the point of impact.
In a lucky break, the plane hit the one side of the Pentagon that had been reinforced during renovations. Had the plane hit another part of the building, the casualties could have been exponentially higher.
Since we had no idea what part of the building had been hit, we started evacuating toward the Mall Entrance, the nearest exit from the building. Once in the hall, however, we saw thick black smoke coming from that direction. People were running out of the smoke toward us and yelling to go the other way.
It wasn't immediately clear whether it had been a bomb that caused the explosion or an aircraft. Once the smoke got closer, however, I recognized the smell of jet fuel and knew what had happened.
Pentagon employees were being directed toward the center courtyard, a large enclosed area inside the innermost ring of the Pentagon.
When we reached the windows overlooking the center courtyard we could see an enormous cloud of dark black smoke billowing from the southwest side of the building. I had seen film clips of the same type of smoke billowing from crashed aircraft at Pearl Harbor. Despite this, I was not experiencing any fear. It was very surreal.
As we followed the crowd, security officers instructed everyone to go into the center courtyard. In certain situations this would be the safest and most logical move, but it seemed like suicide to me.
There was absolutely no way I was going to take my staff into the enclosed center of a terrorist target, especially since further attacks seemed likely. Terry Mitchell, my supervisor and a retired Navy master chief, and I agreed to keep going and try to reach the Pentagon's River Entrance. Much of the crowd had the same idea.
About five minutes after impact, we reached the River Entrance. With thousands of people trying to exit the building through one set of doors, I saw Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz calmly instructing Defense Protective Service officers to open the emergency doors usually kept locked to prevent enemies from entering the building.
Wolfowitz, his foot in a cast from a sports injury, was hobbling his way through the crowd as he helped open the doors.
Wolfowitz was not the only one leading by example. We would learn later that, moments after impact, Rumsfeld personally ran to the crash site and helped evacuate injured personnel.
As we exited the building, we were instructed to get as far away from the building as possible. We got about 150 yards away, crossed Boundary Channel Drive and rallied our group.
We saw victims being carried out of the building, many with head and neck injuries. Some were bloodied but walking out under their own power. Others were walking with the assistance of coworkers. Some were being carried out on stretchers. With ambulances from the entire Washington metropolitan area pouring in, those of us who were not injured directed incoming ambulances to the wounded.
After a few moments, we received word that more planes had been hijacked and were headed for the Pentagon. We were told to get even farther away from the building. I was glad we had opted against the center courtyard.
I told Terry that we needed to find some cover away from the crowd. In my thinking, a terrorist would be tempted to fly his plane into a huge crowd of people rather than an empty building. Being in such a crowd, without protective cover and with nowhere to run did not appeal to me in the least.
A friend, Marine Corps Capt. Riccoh Player, was thinking the same thing. As we were trying to move away from the crowd, he told me that in all his years of preparing for combat he never dreamed that when it finally came he would be without a flak jacket or M-16, and armed with nothing more than a cell phone.
About 15 minutes after the attack, we heard two very loud "booms" and were certain that we were under some sort of further attack. A few seconds later, however, we realized the sounds were sonic booms from two F-16 fighter jets deployed from Langley Air Force Base in southern Virginia. They had been scrambled moments before impact and were just reaching the area. Watching those jets streaking across the sky at Mach 1 was extremely reassuring, despite warnings that more hijacked planes were moments away.
Our group found a suitable location about 250 yards from the building that was concealed from the air by some pine trees and sheltered from the building behind a natural berm.
We would learn later that the second hijacked plane we were expecting, United Airlines Flight 93 bound from Newark to San Francisco, had crashed in Shanksville, Pa.
However, the warnings about more inbound planes were still coming and at one point we heard the sound of jet aircraft overhead.
We were advised to take cover and brace for impact. Seconds later we saw that the source of the noise was not a hijacked jet liner, but instead the most beautiful sight we had ever seen. Screaming overhead were several more fully armed Air Force F-16s and an E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system plane. Knowing our forces had control of the sky was a very good sign!
Since our mission at DoD Public Affairs involves providing up-to-the-minute information to the American public, we immediately started preparing to do just that. Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, deputy spokesman, and the director of the Press Office, Navy Capt. Tim Taylor, had done some reconnaissance and located a site for a temporary public affairs headquarters.
We all headed to a Citgo gas station west of the Pentagon. Camera crews from the broadcast networks had already taken positions there because it provided a direct camera shot of the damaged portion of the building.
On the walk to the Citgo station, my associate Patricia Toombs was right on Taylor's heels. "Okay, Sir," she said, "Let me see if I have this straight. We've been attacked by air, the Pentagon is on fire, there are more planes likely inbound to attack us again and cause more explosions, and you're taking us to a gas station?"
As we made our way to the Citgo station, the damaged portion of the Pentagon became visible. It was a sickening sight to see smoke pouring from a huge blackened segment of our building. Dead and wounded were still being pulled from the burning ruins by fire and rescue personnel.
Once inside the station, we saw televised coverage of the scene in New York. The World Trade Towers had collapsed killing untold numbers of people. Despite the chaos, we were completely numb to pain or anguish. We were doing our jobs. None of what had happened seemed real.
Terry and I were given the task of finding a place in the parking lot to brief the press. We found a suitable location, roped it off, and prepared a spot for reporters and network video camera crews. Within minutes, Quigley came out in front of the cameras to brief the press.
While my staff and I are normally responsible for performing audio and video during Pentagon news briefings, all our equipment was in the burning building. We were now acting as security, making sure the media didn't become unruly and storm forward.
Our standing there proved valuable in an unforeseen way. Many friends around the world who still did not know our fates learned from that televised broadcast that we were alive and well.
Quigley's brief opening statement indicated that the secretary and deputy secretary, Joint Chiefs of Staff and service secretaries were all safe, and that the entire United States had been placed under Force Protection Condition Delta, which meant that the nation was officially under terrorist attack. Then he took reporter's questions.
Yes, it had been confirmed that we were attacked. No, we did not know who attacked us. No, we didn't know if more planes were inbound. No, we didn't have any firm casualty figures. No, we had no reports of American aircraft shooting down civilian airliners.
Throughout the day, we briefed the media several more times. It was difficult to separate actual information from rumors that Chicago had been hit, that U.S. military jets shot down a plane in Pennsylvania, and that further attacks were imminent.
Later I left the gas station and was looking into setting up a more suitable briefing location at Henderson Hall, a nearby Marine Corps facility.
At about 6:30 p.m. I received a call to report immediately back to the Citgo station. When I arrived, media and essential Pentagon personnel were being loaded onto two Metro buses. I was told that per Rumsfeld's orders, we were going into the Pentagon for a news briefing.
The acrid smoke in the Pentagon stung my eyes and burned my lungs, but as I unlocked my office, I was euphoric to find everything operational. It was wonderful to be "home" again.
To my surprise, the lights were still on and the phones were still working. I did a quick function check of all my audio equipment and was very pleased to see that everything was working properly.
The Pentagon's designers had developed redundant power systems to ensure the building could still function if part of it was damaged. Thanks to their foresight, we were still in business.
Within minutes, Rumsfeld, Sen. John Warner, and several other top officials walked into the smoke-filled briefing room. The secretary wanted to show the world that we had taken a blow, but were still standing. The building was still very much on fire and almost totally deserted, the recovery of the dead had only begun, but there we were, conducting a news briefing before a live, worldwide audience.