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Loud Boom, Then Flames In Hallways

Pentagon Employees Flee Fire, Help Rescue Injured Co-Workers

by Mary Beth Sheridan, Washington Post, 12 September 2001


At the Pentagon yesterday morning, the men and women in charge of the nation's defense were staring at news reports of the attack on the World Trade Center. "You know, the next best target would be us," mused Tom Seibert, a network engineering contractor, watching TV.

Five minutes later, Seibert and his associates heard something that sounded like a missile, then a loud boom. The massive Pentagon building trembled. Flames shot through some corridors and chunks of the ceiling started raining down.

"We just hit the dirt," said Seibert, 33, of Woodbridge. "We dived instinctively."

A hijacked American Airlines Boeing 757 had plowed into the west side of the Pentagon, blasting a giant hole into the concrete symbol of U.S. military might. The attack caused scores, perhaps hundreds, of casualties and turned the Pentagon into a scene of panic.

"Everybody started saying, 'Evacuate, evacuate!' " said Air Force Col. David Kopanski.

"It's pretty devastating," he added. "We've all thought this could possibly happen one day. Somebody has touched our country."

Arlington Fire Chief Edward Plaugher said federal authorities were estimating that 100 to 800 people had died at the Pentagon, including the plane's 64 passengers and crew. The Pentagon had said about 800 people worked in the crash area and had not been accounted for, the chief said.

"They are just giving us ballpark numbers," Plaugher said. Some people may have left the building without the Pentagon's knowledge, he added.

As the Pentagon roof continued to burn last night, rescue crews pulled an initial six bodies from the rubble and used dogs and listening devices to seek survivors.

"The human tragedy is overwhelming," said Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R), who visited the site last night.

The Pentagon is one of the world's largest office buildings, with 23,000 employees, a landmark since it was built during World War II. Constructed of 435,000 cubic yards of concrete, it had seemed a symbol of invincibility.

Until now.

The jet ripped a giant hole in the west side of the building nearWashington Boulevard that stretched from the ground to the roof five floors up. At least four floors on the west side pancaked upon each other. Workers and neighbors stood staring in shock at the charred, smoke-wreathed building; one described it as looking like a doughnut with a large bite taken out.

Witnesses in nearby cars and apartments realized something was wrong when they saw a passenger jet traveling fast below treetop level over Interstate 395 just after 9:30 a.m.

Terrance Kean, 35, who lives in a 14-story building nearby, heard the loud jet engines and glanced out his window.

"I saw this very, very large passenger jet," said the architect, who had been packing for a move. "It just plowed right into the side of the Pentagon. The nose penetrated into the portico. And then it sort of disappeared, and there was fire and smoke everywhere. . . . It was very sort of surreal."

Inside the Pentagon, the crash set off contrasting reactions. In some offices, military personnel calmly shut down their computers and walked out of the building. In more damaged areas, panic reigned.

Michael Stancil said he was watching CNN coverage of the World Trade Center attacks in the Pentagon basement when he heard a vibrating sound like a motor. Suddenly, a big gust of air blasted through the room, paper started to fly and smoke began to pour in.

Employees began to evacuate, picking up colleagues who fell in their hurry to escape, said Stancil, 43, an employee in financial resources services. "People were praying," he said.

Another Pentagon employee, a 37-year-old Marine major, said he was at a meeting in the innermost A Ring when he heard a thud and felt the building shudder. He and his colleagues rushed to help rescue people from an area that appeared most heavily damaged, the B Ring between corridors 4 and 5.

"From two-star Army generals to Marine officers, to Navy medics and petty officers, to Army officers and civilian contractors, everybody helped," said the sweaty, exhausted major, who was wearing a bloodstained T-shirt and carrying a face mask, as he took a break from rescue efforts.

The major, who declined to give his name, said he was part of a group that extricated a civilian pinned down by fallen pipes, chunks of wall and other debris. To keep from being overwhelmed by the hot, thick, black smoke, the rescuers passed wet T-shirts to one another to protect their faces as they removed the debris in an assembly-line fashion.

"It took 30 men 30 minutes to get just that one guy to the door 15 feet away," the major said, adding that the man appeared to have suffered cuts and bruises. He said that hundreds of people worked in the B Ring area and that it was "decimated."

"That heat and fire, it could eat you alive in three seconds," he said.

The area of the building hit by the 757 contains the offices of Army and Navy operations personnel. That section had recently been renovated, and officials said they hoped the death count would be limited by the fact that many people had not yet moved into their offices.

The search for survivors was hampered by intense heat and smoke. As late as 10 p.m., rescue teams were having trouble getting close enough to the worst damage.

"We went down that first ring, but we only got 100 feet," said Derek Spector, 37, an Arlington firefighter. "It was an intense amount of heat."

About 70 people, including some rescuers, were taken to hospitals in Virginia and the District. Among the most seriously hurt were a Virginia state trooper, listed in critical condition from smoke inhalation at Inova Alexandria Hospital, and patients at Washington Hospital Center who had burns on 25 percent to 70 percent of their bodies.

Many Pentagon employees pitched in on the relief effort. But others were overwhelmed by the trauma. After fleeing the building, workers collapsed on the lawn, some crying, some struggling to get a connection on cell phones, others looking dazed.

Tamara Moore, an employee in information management support, spoke haltingly.

"We knew the building had been hit. We could feel it." She paused. "It's tough. It's tough to talk about. I ran. I don't have anything. I don't have my pocketbook. I'm worried. Some of my co-workers were in that area."

Ambulances and government helicopters raced to the Pentagon after the attack. More than 300 military and medical personnel rushed into the building in waves, many bearing stretchers.

As firefighters trained streams of water on the blazing building, rescue workers carried dozens of people on stretchers from the interior onto the grass. There, emergency medical technicians from across the region laid out mats, set up intravenous tubes and organized teams of litter-bearers.

"We've got people in there dying," someone shouted.

At one point, panic set in when a rumor swept the crowd that another attack was imminent.

"There's another plane coming," someone shouted. Authorities ordered everyone to get under a concrete underpass. The crowd waited uneasily, staring at the sky. But there was no other attack.

Navy Lt. Evelyn Gibbs, who works at the Pentagon Annex nearby, had just dropped her children at the Pentagon day-care center when she heard about the crash.

"I grabbed my things, and I started running for the Pentagon. . . . I was heading for the day care. I ran, I ran fast. It was about three miles. I just kept running. Good people helped me. They showed me shortcuts," she said.

Finally, Gibbs got to the day-care center, only to find the children gone. She found them in a nearby grassy area with their teachers. "The children were oblivious. They were outside. They were playing," she said.

By afternoon, the investigation was underway. At one point, a column of 50 FBI officers walked shoulder-to-shoulder across the south grounds of the Pentagon, picking up debris and stuffing it into brown bags. The lawn was scattered with chunks of the airplane, some up to four feet across.

In the evening, some 100 people gathered on a hill in Arlington with a panoramic view of the Pentagon and the city beyond. Several set up cameras on tripods.

"I was just looking for someplace that I really could get in touch with what happened today," said Keith Whited, 49, a real estate agent from Mount Vernon. "I can't imagine how anybody could even conceive or do anything so terrible."

"I think a lot of people up here are just curious. I think a lot more up here are like me. They're just trying to understand how this could happen."

Copyright © 2001 The Washington Post Company
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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