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DoD 'Safecrackers' Help Safeguard Pentagon Documents

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 3, 2001 – Two Pentagon civilian employees have been breaking into safes and moving some "hot paper" in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attack on the Defense Department's headquarters.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
DoD locksmiths Michael Dooley (left) and Marion "Snake" Cochran, Jr. have helped to safeguard classified materials since Sept. 17 by cracking safes pulled from the area of the Pentagon damaged in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. Photo by Gerry J. Gilmore.

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

However, don't think Marion "Snake" Cochran Jr., 51, and assistant Michael Dooley, 40, are thieves who specialize in counterfeit currency. Rather, they're DoD locksmiths who've helped to safeguard classified materials by opening more than 80 damaged safes that were removed from offices near the Pentagon's ruined west face.

"All the metal was melted off the front of them and you couldn't identify (which service) owned them," said Dooley, a Missourian who retired from the Air Force a year ago. "I was opening safes when they were still smoking. They were hot."

Dooley estimated about a dozen safes remain to be opened, which should take the rest of the week.

Many of the safes, Cochran noted, contained classified documents that had to be identified and secured, or destroyed in the Pentagon's incinerator.

After the safes were opened, Cochran said, "appropriate authorities" were on hand to determine where the recovered materials came from and if they were classified. Decisions were then made to secure or destroy the materials.

Cochran and Dooley work for Washington Headquarters Services, under the Security Services Division of the Defense Protective Service. "We're the main physical security branch for dealing with any kind of locks, safes, security containers and access-control devices in the Office of the Secretary of Defense," Cochran said.

The two locksmiths had been installing locks and other security devices in offices in the Pentagon's newly renovated Wedge 1 section in the days before the attack, said Cochran, an 11-year Air Force veteran. Leaving the service in 1981, he secured a job with a local lock service. He joined the Pentagon team in 1985.

Since Sept. 17, he and Dooley have been busy "cutting open safes that came out of" the Pentagon, Cochran said. The two former Air Force technical sergeants said they learned much of their locksmithing skills on the job in the service. Cochran said those skills have come in handy handling hot safes.

"The heat was so intense that most of the hardware on the outside was melted," he said, adding that special saws and "jaws-of-life" devices used in auto accidents have been employed to open the safes.

Cochran said each safe presents a different challenge, depending on size, damage and the method used to open it. Time spent opening safes, he said, has varied from 20 to 90 minutes.

"They're still pulling out safes as far as I know," he added.

The North Carolinian said he received his "Snake" moniker from a supervisor when he was in the Air Force. "Marion is sort of a rough name to live with, and I used to have a pet boa constrictor," he explained.

Dooley said he had been working "close to 12-hour shifts" since Sept. 17. He said he was bruised "black-and-blue" from wielding the 52-pound "jaws-of-life" to pry open the safes.

He recalled that he had always thought that if the Pentagon were ever attacked that such an assault would come from a car or briefcase bomb.

"I never, ever thought it would be an airplane," he added, noting that the explosion "shook our room like you'd never believe." After the impact, Dooley said he and Cochran helped to evacuate people from the building.

A television news broadcast about the World Trade Center attacks may have saved his and Dooley's lives, Cochran recalled. The two had been preparing to head out for work when news of the New York attacks broke on an office TV. They became transfixed.

"We were sitting there watching the TV when (the airliner) hit us," he said. Otherwise, he and Dooley would have been working in Wedge 1 -- the impact zone.

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