9/11: Keeping the Heart of the Pentagon Beating
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 7, 2006 Sept. 11, 2001, started beautifully. But by 10 a.m., the clear blue skies were marred by black smoke rising above horrific scenes of death and destruction.
The personnel of the National Military Command Center, deep inside the Pentagon, come in early -- 5:30 a.m. -- but already they could tell the day was going to be gorgeous. As the first faint blush of dawn touched the Pentagon, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The temperatures promised to be in the upper 70s with little humidity.
Pushing aside the urge to play hooky, the men and women of the NMCC came into the building and began what they believed would be a typical day.
Dan Mangino was -- and still is -- an operations officer in the command center. “It was just a typical day,” he said. “It’s always exciting to come to work here, because even on typical days, there is so much to do. You end your shift every day knowing you helped the military accomplish something.”
Steve Hahn is also an operations officer at the center. He was just returning from leave with his son that day and was hoping to catch up on work.
The day began to change at 8:46 a.m. That’s when the first plane hit the World Trade Center, in New York. “We monitor the television networks in the center, and along with the rest of America we saw the smoke pouring from the tower,” Hahn said.
“At first, we thought it was a terrible accident,” Mangino said. “But then the second plane hit the other tower, and we knew immediately that it was a terrorist attack.”
Personnel in the center shifted into hyperdrive. One of Mangino’s deputies was to stand up working groups and task forces immediately. “I knew at that point it was a terrorist attack and initiated the process to stand-up a working group in advance of the direction that would come down later,” he said.
Phones in the center began ringing off the hook. Mangino said he knew he would have little time in the days ahead, so he quickly ran to the concourse to get some money out of an automated teller machine.
He was on his way back to the center when United Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon between the third and fourth corridors. It was 9:38 a.m. “I was in the A Ring and saw the fireball above the roof of the building,” he said. “I didn’t know what had hit us, but I knew we had been hit.”
Hahn, in the center, did not feel the impact. “I didn’t know (the Pentagon had been hit) until I heard the news report on television,” he said.
Though the building had been hit, DoD’s heartbeat kept on strong and steady. The command center never lost connectivity. Officials received and sent updates from the White House, combatant commands, and other federal agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration, intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies.
Mangino sprinted back to the center. He was greeted by a sea of calm. “There was no panic, no raised voices,” he said. “We train for emergencies all the time, and that training took over.”
“It was very professional, and very calm,” Hahn said. “In the initial few minutes, we had to figure out what we needed to do. It takes a few minutes to sink in, and then you have to figure out what to do. We talked and decided that we had to marshal some of our people at the alternative location and began the process.”
The people in the center had no way of assessing the damage to the building, which was substantial. The aircraft hit next to the Pentagon heliport at ground level. The plane was moving in excess of 400 miles per hour, officials said, and it sliced into the building almost to the B Ring. The fuel aboard the 757 exploded, and flame-specked black clouds enveloped that area of the five-sided building.
Fifty-nine crew and passengers and five terrorists were aboard the airplane; all died immediately.
The plane hit a section of the building that had been recently renovated and incorporated the newest force protection measures. Also, many offices were empty, awaiting occupants. As it was, 125 Pentagon employees -- military and civilian -- perished in the attack. Hundreds suffered injuries.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld felt the building shake from his office. He ran to the courtyard and helped evacuate casualties and viewed the triage site.
He then moved to the National Military Command Center.
Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers was then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He had been nominated as chairman and was making the rounds of Senate offices on Capitol Hill. The chairman -- Army Gen. Hugh Shelton -- was over the North Atlantic on his way to NATO meetings. When the second plane hit the World Trade Center, Myers immediately left the Hill and rushed back to the Pentagon to get to the command center.
He said it was obvious early on that the attacks were the work of al Qaeda. American officials in the National Military Command Center were charting the course to attack al Qaeda while the building was still burning from the attack.
One of the areas hit in the attack was the new Navy Operations Center. Hahn said that many of the people in the NMCC worked closely with the Navy watch standers. “That morning I got a phone call from a Navy wife who was inquiring about her husband,” he said. “I didn’t know at that point that they had moved in to the area that was at the impact point. I had to give her a noncommittal answer, because I just didn’t know. Five years later, I still remember her voice.”
Added to all this confusion were reports that another airliner -- United Flight 93 -- had been hijacked and was on its way to Washington. “We were told the Pentagon could be its target,” Mangino said. “But there was no panicking. You do what you’ve got to do. That’s what’s expected of you.”
The response of reservists who drilled at the center was gratifying to both Hahn and Mangino. “Many called in and just said ‘I’m yours. Where do you want me?’” Mangino said. “There were no complaints, no hassles, just a need to do something constructive.”
Another reservist showed up with no orders and just began to work, Hahn said. Still another packed a backpack with food and walked the seven miles from her house to the command center. “There was no food here, so she was a real hero,” Hahn said with a smile.
He said the watch team was “up to their necks in alligators” and all helped in manning phones. “We had to double up on some of the desks and stayed that way for a couple of weeks,” he said.
Training came to the fore, Mangino said. “We train everyone to the same level of proficiency -- military and civilian, active and reserve,” he said. “It paid off. The week before, we had an exercise setting up the alternative command center. Because of that, there were remarkably few problems in setting it up for real.”
Later in the day, the command center began filling with smoke. All areas surrounding the center had to be evacuated because of the build-up of smoke and carbon monoxide from fires on the other side of the building. But people wanted to stay and complete their missions.
Hahn left the command center at about 10 p.m. Mangino stayed through the night, and Hahn relieved him in the morning. The two men were “port and starboard” leaders through the next several months.
Looking back on the experience, both men praised their co-workers in the center. “I was so proud of the professional manner that everybody just went on with their work,” Mangino said. “Things were really not good here, but we still had missions to complete. And they continued working. They were troopers, every one of them.”
“Everyone wanted to do whatever it took,” Hahn said. “Military and civilian, they all wanted to help and would work as long as they physically could.”
Over Washington, it was a beautiful sunset on Sept. 11, 2001, but one stained by the smoke and flames of terrorism.