(Live interview with Matt Lauer for NBC Today.)
Lauer: Now an unprecedented look at the inner workings of the symbol of America's military might. Just in time for Independence Day, the National Geographic Channel's "Inside the Pentagon" special premieres tonight. Ironically, construction of the Pentagon began on September 11, 1941, exactly 60 years before a hijacked American Airlines jet crashed into the side of that building.
Lee Evey is the program manager of the reconstruction effort, which is called the Phoenix Project. Mr. Evey, good morning to you. Happy Fourth of July.
Evey: Good morning, Matt. Thank you very much. Nice to be here.
Lauer: We've talked a lot about the reconstruction efforts at the Pentagon since September 11th, tried to monitor that and keep tabs of it here on the show. But what a lot of people don't realize is that there was a major construction project at the Pentagon going on before September 11th. What was taking place?
Evey: We were in the midst of a renovation of the entire Pentagon. It's six and a half million square feet. The building covers 34 acres, and it includes 25,000 people within the building. So that was a huge construction project that was already underway on the morning of September 11th.
Lauer: How would you characterize, Lee, the damage that was done to the Pentagon itself on September 11th?
Evey: Well, it was pretty extensive, Matt. Altogether, we had to demolish about 400,000 square feet of the building and are in the process of rebuilding that now. To put that in practical terms, that's the equivalent of about two large Home Depots.
Lauer: And what was your biggest challenge, Lee, in the days immediately following September 11th in getting this reconstruction project up and running?
Evey: Well, of course, things were very confused for a short period of time there after the immediate impact on September 11th. Subsequent to that, getting materials on-site, getting access to the site -- because it was a crime-scene area -- we had to work closely with FEMA, with FBI, with other search-and-rescue agencies to get our people in there to assist them in those activities and start the preparations for the ultimate reconstruction.
Lauer: I was reading that you had worked at the Pentagon for about five years prior to September 11th. Try and compare for me the mood and how life is different post-September 11th as compared to the time before the attacks.
Evey: Well, of course, this is the Pentagon, so everyone here is at all times highly motivated. But I would say after September 11th, the mood in the building became even more intense, more dedicated and more committed to, on our side, bringing the building back up as quickly as possible, making this building whole once again, and ensuring that everyone is in place and able to do their mission.
On the building side, I think the events in Afghanistan and other places have spoken for themselves.
Lauer: Now, I mentioned the reconstruction project that was already underway before September 11th. I know part of that project was to make the building less vulnerable to attack. And I don't want you to give anything away that would be security-sensitive, but what other steps have you taken in the rebuilding process to make the building less vulnerable?
Evey: Well, we've looked at some of the things that we had already put into the building. As you may know, we put in things like blast-resistant windows, steel-strengthening for the walls, a Kevlar-type ballistic cloth to help prevent fragmentation of masonry. We had done some things like that already. And we're continuing our work on those efforts to even improve those characteristics.
We're doing some other things as well internal to the building. We're looking at ways we can improve firefighting and damage control inside the building, improving the sprinkler systems, toughening up the building on the interior as well to ensure that if we're ever exposed to this kind of building threat again, that the building would perform even better than it did last time.
Lauer: Where does the overall project stand?
Evey: Well, right now we've completed -- on the Phoenix Project, the portion of the building that we are bringing back up, we are completed with all of the exterior work on that and we're rapidly working on the interior at this point.
As you may know, Matt, we've made a commitment to the American people that we will have people back at the point of the building where the aircraft impacted on September 11th -- we'll have those people back into those locations, at their desks, doing their jobs, performing their missions, by September 11th of this year.
And I'm happy to say that at this point, right now, we are installing carpet. We're installing furniture. We're doing the last preparatory work to be able to start the first groups of people back into the building. It's our expectation right now that on September 11th of this year we'll have about 200 people moved back into that immediate area where the aircraft hit.
Lauer: And Lee, I want to mention the National Geographic special doesn't only talk about reconstruction. It takes viewers inside the Pentagon itself to some places they've never seen before. What do you think viewers will find most surprising?
Evey: Well, I think that what will be most surprising to people is that the Pentagon, although it holds 25,000 people and it has a great symbolic importance to the public, that it's really a very small community. When you're inside the Pentagon, when you're part of that family, you really are part of a community. And I think that sense of community, that sense of belonging, that sense of closeness, is something that people on the outside have probably never seen.
Lauer: And quickly, if you will, the building was built in the shape of a fortress. After September 11th, is it impossible not to see that fortress as slightly more vulnerable?
Evey: Well, Matt, what I have to say -- and I know, because we were moving the people in the building at the time -- when that aircraft hit the building, in the immediate area of the impact, there were 2,600 people. And although we took some casualties, and that's unfortunate, the job that that building did in protecting its occupants was superlative. It did a wonderful job. And we're going to make this building even more tough in the future.
Lauer: Lee Evey. Lee, again, happy Fourth of July, and thanks for talking to us.
Evey: Thank you, Matt. Thanks for the interest in our program.
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