Army Hero Recalls Pentagon 9-11 Rescue-Recovery Efforts
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 13, 2002 An Army noncommissioned officer described "reaching through a cloud of smoke" to rescue people in the Pentagon shortly after the terrorist- hijacked airliner slammed into the building Sept. 11.
Staff Sgt. Christopher D. Braman, a special operations soldier, told an audience March 12 at the National Press Club here how he had used his combat search and rescue skills at the Pentagon attack site. The NCO was one of several guest panelists at the first of a series of National Mental Health Awareness Campaign Town Hall meetings.
Moderator Tipper Gore, also the campaign chairwoman, said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in Washington, New York City and Pennsylvania not only claimed innocent American lives, but also "struck at our national psyche." All Americans, she noted, can gain strength and knowledge from sharing "how they have dealt" with the terrorist attacks.
Sept. 11 began like any other day at the Pentagon, Braman noted. His job, he said, required him to purchase food and other items for the general officers' dining room. He recalled having completed his routine shopping rounds and then having breakfast.
Around 8:30 a.m., he recalled, "little bits and pieces" of information circulated around the Pentagon about the New York City attacks. Braman thought people seemed to be hurrying faster than usual down the Pentagon's labyrinthine hallways.
Braman's wife called him about an hour later with news confirming the World Trade Center attacks. He said he told her not to worry about him and hung up.
Then, the hijacked airliner plowed into the Pentagon's west wall.
"As soon as I hung up the phone, I got rocked forward," Braman recalled.
Evacuation of the building began. As he exited, Braman saw "over 100 people" milling around outside.
"Everyone was in a state of shock," he said.
A woman covered with ashes was crying "Where's my baby, where's my baby?" Braman recalled.
"The baby was in her arms," he noted.
Another person "had all of her clothes blown off her," Braman remembered. The woman had sustained grievous burns and was mute from shock, like many survivors Braman said he had encountered outside the stricken building.
After seeing such misery, Braman said, he prayed for strength, then sprinted toward the burning Pentagon and crawled in through a window to search for more survivors. He said he found and carried the first victim to safety and then went back again and again to rescue others.
"I could barely see. ... There was this heated smoke. It was incredible," he explained. The sergeant was later treated for burned lungs.
The attack occurred on a Tuesday morning. After speaking with his wife again early that afternoon, Braman stayed and continued to work with rescue and recovery crews the remainder of that day and the next three days.
"They kept saying 'Go home, go home!' I milled around and kept finding things to do," he noted. From his contacts in the Pentagon commissary system, Braman secured a 50-foot- long refrigerated truck that would be used to store remains temporarily.
Braman said he and other rescue and recovery workers pulled the first 17 bodies out of the Pentagon. The search for victims in the burning building, he noted, was dangerous and gruesome.
"As we crawled through certain areas, there was ankle-deep water full of debris, broken, twisted steel ... human matter in the water, it was an incredible sight," Braman explained. The NCO said he recovered and bagged 63 separate sets of remains.
He said he responded, "I'm fine, I'm fine," when people asked how he was coping, but at the time he didn't realize that the strain of such stressful duty was taking a toll.
"I compartmentalized everything, put it aside. I didn't show any emotion during those days," he explained.
Early Friday morning, Braman left the Pentagon to go home to see his wife and three children.
"I laid in my bed and didn't close my eyes," he said. Unable to rest, the NCO said goodbye to his family and drove back to the attack site. Emotion overcame the exhausted soldier a few miles from the Pentagon.
"I had to pull over to the side of the road ... I became paralyzed -- I broke down," he recalled. "And during that time, those 45 minutes, I couldn't move."
Braman said he regained his composure and reported to the searchers and rescuers at the Pentagon.
"That Friday, I was back under that burning (Pentagon) roof" searching for survivors and remains," Braman recalled. Later that day, after helping an FBI forensic team identify remains, Braman said he was "ordered to leave."
After removing his grime-encrusted clothes at the crash site, the sergeant said he was given a medical exam. The doctor's diagnosis revealed Braman had developed a type of pneumonia from the super-heated smoke. The physician noted that the sergeant's smoke-damaged lungs looked like those "of a 20-year smoker."
"I have no regrets. I chose to be there," he noted, adding he'd "turned down the medals they gave me."
The sergeant's mind, however, had also been scarred by his experiences in the burning Pentagon.
Braman quickly attended a stress management discussion group to share his feelings and experiences with others who'd witnessed the horror of the Pentagon attack. But images of death and destruction continued to haunt him.
He recalled the time the sight of a rack of ribs unnerved him at a home barbecue.
"I got sick," he explained.
Braman would soon experience an incident that he said has helped him to reach some closure. The week after the barbecue, he paid a hospital visit to a woman whom he had rescued. Of the three persons he had pulled out of the Pentagon, he noted, only she had survived.
"She held me so tight that you couldn't tell that she was burned," Braman recalled.
"She said I was her guardian angel. ... I told her that that was my reward," he added.
Braman told the woman that he'd prayed to find someone alive when he entered the burning Pentagon and reminded her that she'd prayed to be rescued.
"We had answered each other's prayers," he explained.