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September 11 at the Pentagon

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 11, 2001 – It feels like a year since September 11 rather than a month. The longest day was September 11 itself.

The day began well in Washington. The weather was beautiful, with temperatures beginning in the 50s and rising toward 70. The sun was shining with a gentle breeze. At the Pentagon, it was a day like any other. The day before, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had declared war on bureaucracy that stifled innovation. The Early Bird was filled with stories covering that event.

Then CNN started broadcasting video of the World Trade Center North Tower burning. At first, it was unclear whether the inferno in New York was the result of terrorism or just an accident. The second plane ramming into the trade center's South Tower removed all doubt.

People in the Pentagon exchanged shocked glances. At 9:38 a.m., it was their turn.

American Airlines Flight 77 had taken off without incident from Dulles International Airport 20 miles away. It was well on its way to the West Coast when hijackers took control and circled back toward Washington. The plane flew low, following Columbia Pike in Arlington, a major avenue that beelines from the suburbs to the Pentagon. Witnesses remember hearing the plane throttle up just before it hit the Pentagon at Wedge One and ignited.

Smoke billowed over the building while people inside groped to escape. Where the jetliner hit looked like someone had taken a knife and sliced the building down to the ground. Pieces of the aircraft littered the heliport area, and the fire truck and vehicles normally posted there were on fire.

The next several hours were the worst of times, but they brought out the best in the people of the Pentagon.

Inside the offices, co-workers helped each other out of their offices and out of the building. Leaders ensured their people were accounted for as the evacuation progressed. Defense Protective Service officers charged to the scene and started directing the evacuation. Other officers went into the building to carry people to safety.

Small acts of sacrifice and courage lowered the death toll. Colonels, captains, sergeants, yeomen and DoD civilians searched offices and called out to anyone who might still be inside. They fought through blinding, choking black smoke and heat to reach their co-workers.

Outside, the Arlington County police and fire departments arrived and started securing the area and pumping water on the blaze. Doctors, nurses and emergency medical technicians who happened to be driving by stopped and started setting up triage areas for those wounded in the attack. More equipment arrived from the City of Alexandria, Fairfax County, Washington and the Maryland counties.

Helicopters flew the most seriously wounded to nearby hospitals from a makeshift heliport set up close to the Navy Annex, a building complex near the Pentagon.

In other parts of the building unaffected by the blast, the evacuation went calmly, with people stopping to secure classified items and ensuring all members were out of an office before securing it.

One area never closed: The National Military Command Center. Rumsfeld and the senior leadership repaired to the facility and monitored DoD activities worldwide. At one point, smoke grew so thick in the facility that there was talk of evacuating, but Rumsfeld scotched it.

Once outside, commanders and supervisors counted their people. Police told people to get away from the building. "Another plane is inbound," they shouted. And people moved away through the Pentagon's South Parking lot on one side and toward the Potomac River and the 14th Street Bridge on another. In Washington, thousands of federal workers were told to go home, adding to the gridlock in the area.

With Reagan National Airport closed and all flights diverted, the suddenly silent skies seemed ominous. An F-16 screamed over the building. People looked up anxiously until an Air Force officer in a parade ground voice yelled, "It's all right. It's one of ours."

The portion of the Pentagon to the right of the initial impact area collapsed. Firefighters withdrew until the situation stabilized. The area, one of the wedges that had just been renovated, had held together long enough for many workers to escape.

All around the Pentagon, people desperately wanted to help. Hundreds of service members and civilians answered a call for litter bearers. They stood patiently in the sun as firefighters and police directed them. Though not used, they were ready.

Other people transported those with minor injuries to area hospitals. A pick-up truck with six people in the bed delivered some of the victims to Arlington Hospital a few miles away. These were people with cuts, bruises, sprains and some smoke inhalation. Helicopters and ambulances transported the most seriously injured.

One of the first things to happen was the cell phone network around the Pentagon overloaded. Those fortunate enough to get through gathered phone numbers from those standing with them. They assured their spouses they were all right and then gave them the other phone numbers so other families could be reassured.

More resources continued to pour into the area. Fort Belvoir engineers specializing in urban search and rescue arrived at the Pentagon. So did FBI agents and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials. Arlington County began setting up a joint operations center at Fort Myer, Va.

Fire continued to burn the Pentagon and spread in unrenovated sections. Flames ignited core materials in the layered roof and were particularly difficult to get at. Pools of aviation fuel would ignite occasionally and create thick black smoke over the building. The smell of fire spread to Washington, Alexandria and Fairfax.

Across Washington Boulevard from the Pentagon, the press set up shop at the Navy Annex Exchange gas station and broadcast the fire fighting activities. With Correspondents' Corridor closed, reporters dictated stories using cell phones. TV trucks with antennae showed up and eased some of the communications problems.

At 6 p.m., with the building still on fire, Pentagon officials announced Rumsfeld would hold a press conference in the Pentagon. Buses arrived at the gas station to take reporters, photographers and videographers to the Pentagon.

Inside the River Entrance of the building the smoke hit like a physical force. People could not see to the end of the hallways and it was tough to breathe. The smell of burning insulation and electrical wiring permeated the briefing studio.

As Rumsfeld, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Henry Shelton, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, ranking minority member Sen. John Warner and Army Secretary Thomas White came into the studio, one side of the building was still on fire.

Rumsfeld expressed his sorrow over the loss of life at the building, but then he said, "The Pentagon is functioning. It will be in business tomorrow."

The Pentagon was much like the men and women who worked there -- scarred and sorrowful, but still ready to fight.

(This story is a result of observations, interviews and conversations made on Sept. 11 and in the days following. It is by no means an attempt to tell all the stories.)

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