By Vinny Del Giudice
Editor, Arlington Fire Journal
The firehouse at the Pentagon heliport is the quietest in Arlington County, Virginia. The little station, located just off the landing pad on the west side of Defense Department headquarters, is typically staffed by a small crew of civilian firefighters from the U.S. Army's Fort Myer Fire Department.
At 9:39 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, the crew of Foam Tender 161 was at ``Ground Zero,’’ on the banks of the Potomac River, across from Washington, D.C.
Piloting four hijacked airliners, terrorists took aim at the heart and soul of America, toppling the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and setting the Pentagon ablaze. Nineteen fanatics – led by an Egyptian named Mohammed Atta and backed by Osama bin Laden’s ruthless Al Qaeda network – committed mass murder in the financial and governmental centers of the nation. Atta piloted the first of two aircraft to hit the trade center.
At the Pentagon, 189 people died, including a woman who succumbed at the Washington Hospital Center burn unit days later. Everyone on the airplane - 64 passengers and crew - perished. The others, including soldiers and sailors and members of the Defense Intelligence Agency, died inside the Pentagon.
The greatest loss of life, of course, was in lower Manhattan. More than 2,000 people died in New York, including 343 members of the New York Fire Department - a roll call larger than the fire department in Arlington County. Other first responders in New York, including city and port authority police officers and a member of the New York Fire Patrol, perished as well.
A fourth aircraft went down in a field in rural Pennsylvania as passengers heroically struggled with hijackers. Forty-five died there, and there was little members of the township's volunteer fire department could do when they reached the scene - a giant smoking hole. That jetliner was likely headed to Washington too, and the White House, Capitol, Treasury and other government buildings were evacuated after the Pentagon crash.
In all, the death toll in New York, Arlington and Pennsylvania topped Pearl Harbor.
Loss of Foam Tender 161
Fort Myer firefighter Alan Wallace, a veteran federal firefighter, was tending to the foam rig on the Pentagon fire station ramp, when he heard the Boeing 757’s screaming engines – and looked to the sky. American Airlines Fight 77 to Los Angeles, with 64 souls aboard, had been hijacked from Washington-Dulles International Airport. ``Runnnnn!’’ Wallace yelled to a buddy, firefighter Mark Skipper.
The plane was 200 yards away - and 25 feet off the ground.
``There was no time to look back, barely time to scramble’’ for Wallace and the others, The Washington Post said. ``He made it about 30 feet, heard a terrible roar, felt the heat, and dove underneath a van, skinning his stomach as he slid across the blacktop, sailing across it as though he were riding a luge.
``A few seconds later he was sliding back out to check on his friend and then race back to the fire truck,’’ the Post said. ``He jumped in threw it into gear, but the accelerator was dead. The entire back of the truck was destroyed, the cab on fire. He grabbed the radio handset and called the main station at Fort Myer to report the unimaginable.’’
It was a firestorm – a war zone. Our Pearl Harbor – ``The Big One.’’
'I wanted to help'
Volunteer association president Harold LeRoy, one of the grand old men of the Arlington County Fire Department, was at his home in Virginia Highlands, not far from the Pentagon, when he heard the rumble. ``Sounds like one of those construction sites collapsed at Pentagon City,’’ LeRoy told his wife. The telephone rang. It was his daughter. Put on the television, she told him.
Ailing and in his 80s, all LeRoy could do was watch from a distance. ``I remember the Pentagon when it was just a hole in the ground,’’ said LeRoy, who joined the Jefferson District Volunteer Fire Department in 1939. ``I grew up with that building. I wanted to help. That really hurt.’’
LeRoy had been among those to fight a general alarm fire in the Pentagon’s basement on July 2, 1959, the previous ``Big One.’’
This was worse – much, much worse.
Flight 77 touched off from Runway ``Three-zero'' at Dulles at about 8:20 a.m. Investigators estimate it was commandeered about 30 minutes later over southern Ohio by five hijackers. What's more, the jetliner ``disappeared from controllers' radar screens for at least 30 minutes -- in part because it was hijacked in an area of limited radar coverage,'' The Washington Post said, adding: ``That gap cost military and aviation officials valuable warning time.'' It wasn't until 12 minutes before impact that ``controllers at Dulles sounded an alert that an unidentified aircraft was headed toward Washington at high speed,'' the newspaper said.
On the outskirts of the city, Flight 77, which approached from the southwest, made a 270 degree turn toward on the Pentagon.
The hijackers apparently disabled the aircraft's radar transponder, complicating the hunt. Transcripts from the Indianapolis air traffic center heralded the worst: ``American 77 departed off of Dulles is going to L.A. Dispatch doesn't know where he's at and confirmed that two airplanes have been - uh - they crashed into - uh - the World Trade Center in New York. So as far as American 77, we don't know where he is.''
Hijackers named by FBI
The FBI identified the hijackers of Flight 77 as Khalid Al-Midhar, Majed Moqed, Nawaq Alhamzi, Salem Alhamzi and Hani Hanjour. FBI agents suspected Hanjour was the pilot; the others apparently provided the muscle. With the help of a local man, some of the hijackers fraudulently acquired identification cards through the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles office in Arlington, The Washington Post said.
``Investigators believe the passengers were herded into the rear of the plane,'' according to the BBC. ``Among the passengers was TV commentator Barbara Olson, wife of US Solicitor General Theodore Olson. She called her husband twice. She said the hijackers were armed with knives and boxcutters and she asked him, "What should I tell the pilot to do?" During the second call he told her a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. ''
The Washington Post said: ``Three District (of Columbia) schoolchildren and three teachers were on Flight 77, headed to Santa Barbara, Calif., for an ecology conference sponsored by National Geographic.''
The Post also said Sept. 12 of the souls aboard Flight 77: ``There was not even the grace of instant death. Instead, there was time to call from the sky over Virginia, fingers pumping cell phones, terrified passengers talking to loved ones for one final time.''
On its final descent, Flight 77 passed over Arlington National Cemetery.
Roaring at 530 miles per hour, the jetliner penetrated 310 feet into the Pentagon's reinforced steel infrastructure within a second or two of the fiery impact, according to an analysis by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The engineering report was issued in January 2003.
Bill Wright, a civilian employee of the Army, was at his desk on the first floor of the Pentagon and discussing the attack on the World Trade Center when "something fell out of the ceiling and hit me on the head," he told the Baltimore Sun. Wright was thrown 20 feet from his desk and lost his glasses. An Air Force officer helped him escape. ``I'm just lucky as hell,'' said Wright, whose head was wrapped in a bandage.
Worse than Oklahoma City
The death toll at the Pentagon alone on Sept. 11 was higher than the 168 killed in the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building on April 19, 1995. It also exceeded the death toll of another Potomac River tragedy, the crash of an Air Florida jetliner into the nearby 14th Street Bridge during a snowstorm on Jan. 13, 1982. That tragedy occurred very close to the Pentagon.
The scene - if such comparisons can be made - was more shocking considering the psychological effect of striking at the core of the nation's military might as well as New York's ``Twin Towers.''
In a video that surfaced in December, bin Laden spoke of how he and his deputies learned of the initial attack in New York from news reports. "They were overjoyed when the first plane hit the building," bin Laden said. "So I said to them: 'Be patient.'"
Flames raged at the Pentagon.
Concrete floors caved in. Columns collapsed. Steel melted.
Black smoke turned the morning light to darkness.
The ghastly plume was visible from the White House, Capitol and other points across the Potomac River.
The hijacked 757 had pierced the unique internal structure consisting of five rings of parallel corridors. A remote security camera recorded images of the jetliner – really just a blur – hurtling across the Pentagon grounds and then the angry orange fireball, with the Pentagon firehouse visible.
Burned and bruised, Wallace and the other Fort Myer firefighters turned to help the people streaming, stumbling and jumping from the Pentagon. Even in combat, in Vietnam, Wallace had never seen anything like it, the Post said.
``A structural collapse, a building fire and a plane crash all rolled up into one’’ – that’s what firefighters faced, John Huff told the Associated Press. Huff, a deputy fire chief from Lincoln, Nebraska, led a Federal Emergency Management Agency urban search and rescue task force at the Pentagon.
Generals and admirals were shaken as well. "We have a variety of plans for a variety of things," said Rear Admiral Craig Quigley, quoted by the Scripps Howard News Service. "But what you're seeing here is a full assault on the United States of America."
Less than a year earlier, military and civilian agencies, including the Arlington County Fire Department held a table top exercise that included a mock crash of a passenger jet at the Pentagon courtyard, according to a November 2000 press release from the Military District of Washington. ``Our role is fire and rescue,'' Arlington Battalion Chief Robert Cornwell said at that Oct. 24-26 exercise. Eleven months later, Cornwell, a Vietnam veteran and more recently a cancer survivor, was a senior fire officer supervising the Sept. 11 response.
Fire and rescue forces
The Arlington County Fire Department was the lead agency in the response to the Pentagon attack. The county fire department operates 10 stations, and is a signatory to an automatic regional response plan with neighboring Fairfax County as well as the city of Alexandria, and participates in a regional mutual aid pact with the District of Columbia and the Maryland counties of Montgomery and Prince George’s.
The Fort Myer Fire Department, which operates the Pentagon station in addition to a firehouse at its main post, protects the Army base, Arlington National Cemetery, the Marine Corps’ Henderson Hall, the Navy Annex and the Pentagon, operates as a part of the county system. Reagan Washington National Airport, also in Arlington County, fields a fire department and works closely with the county's fire service.
On Sept. 11, 2001, the Arlington County Fire Department employed 279 men and women, supplemented by the volunteer firefighters and EMTs of the Arlington County Fire & Rescue Association. (More career firefighters were hired after the attack, bringing the total to 305 by 2005. Minimum staffing on the county's engine companies was also increased to four firefighters from three in the months after the attack. A number of new volunteers also signed after the Sept. 11 attack, and the county trained CERT Teams - Citizens Emergency Response Teams - in cooperation with the federal Department of Homeland Security as a part of its stepped up disaster preparedness program.)
Long before the attack, Arlington County Fire Chief Edward Plaugher had -- as Fire Chief magazine described it -- ``connected the dots'' and warned the Washington area was vulnerable to terrorist attack.
After a sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway killed 12 people in 1995, Plaugher and other fire chiefs in the region mapped out contingencies, with Plaugher speculating - according to Fire Chief magazine - that a truck bomb would be the most likely incident. That planning, according to the Congressional Commission investigating the attacks, contributed to a mostly successful response to the crash of Flight 77.
``What I actually said to an audience of 2,000 people years earlier was that on that day, when I stand on that hill looking down at a smoking Pentagon - as fire chief responsible for responding to incidents at the Pentagon - I want the very best experts there to advise me and help me through this incident," said Plaugher, who was named Fire Chief magazine's Career Chief of the Year in 2004.
Airport firefighters assault flames
Captain Michael Defina, a member of the airport fire department, was attending to an auto accident near the Pentagon when he heard ``a dull roar,’’ according to The Virginia Fire News. ``I turned and saw a smoke plume arise … I knew it wasn’t an accident.’’
Crews from Arlington County, Fort Myer and the airport were fully aware of the twin attacks on the twin towers in New York as they answered the alarm at Box 7560. As the Post reported: ``Arlington firefighter Andrea Kaiser freely admits that she was terrified Tuesday as she steered Engine 101 toward the Pentagon – terrified that terrorists would strike again, terrified of a structural collapse, terrified that there would be no survivors.’’
Defina ordered the airport’s big green Foam 331 to the heliport. The rig ``hit the fire with foam from its roof and bumper turrets,’’ according to Virginia Fire News. Firefighters from another airport unit, Rescue Engine 335, assisted the injured and tended to fires in diesel fuel and propane tanks at the crash site, the Fire News said.
Fort Myer's Wallace and Skipper, and the third man on their crew, Dennis Young, helped pull 10 to 15 people from a window, according to the Pentagram newspaper. ``Everywhere people were yelling trying to give directions for people to get out,'' Wallace said. (Coincidentally, Fort Myer was the site of the world's first fatal aircraft accident in September 1908. Army Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge was fatally injured during a demonstration flight piloted by inventor Orville Wright.)
On Sept. 11, Arlington Hospital received most of the casualties, including Wallace, who suffered burn injuries. More severe burn cases went to the Washington Hospital Center, which operates the region's burn unit. Northern Virginia Community Hospital in Arlington also received the injured. The Washington region's other hospitals were placed on alert. The American Red Cross made an emergency appeal for blood supplies, which it described as ``critically short.''
Communications, meantime, were problematic.
The Sept. 11 Commission report said:
Almost all aspects of communications continue to be problematic, from initial notification to tactical operations. Cellular telephones were of little value . . . Radio channels were initially oversaturated . . . Pagers seemed to be the most reliable means of notification when available and used, but most firefighters are not issued pagers.
Collapse! - Captain Gibbs' evacuation order
Reaching the seat of the fire proved difficult. The heat was intense and the flames violent. Jet fuel is a blend of kerosene and gasoline, and Flight 77 was fully laden for the coast-to-coast flight.
Firefighters launched an exterior attack, using ladder pipes, airport crash tenders – all their big guns. They also attempted an interior attack. ``It was back breaking work carrying hose across that debris,’’ said Captain Scott McKay, who supervised interior fire fighting efforts. ``We were passing by some pretty good fires that on any other day would have been a major job to get to the big fire.’’
About 30 minutes after the crash, five floors gave way - COLLAPSE! ``It pancaked,’’ said Arlington Battalion Chief Jim Bonzano.
And yet, none of the firefighters were injured in the collapse.
Arlington Fire Captain Charles Gibbs ordered firefighters attempting to battle the flames from the inside to evacuate after hearing radio traffic about a fissure - stretching from the ground to the roof - adjacent to the crash site. The airport's Defina, in an interview in 2002, said he reported the crack over the radio. Others apparently radioed similar warnings.
Gibbs, who was assigned to the county fire academy, recounted the events of that day in an article in the Journal newspapers marking the first anniversary of the attack. He saw the jetliner fly over the fire academy, heard a muffled explosion, hopped into a Ford explorer with another fire officer and headed to the Pentagon.``I said to myself, `That is not a normal flight path,''' he said. ``It was so close it looked like it was going to hit Glebe Road.''
Once at the scene, incident commander James Schwartz, Arlington's assistant fire chief for operations, ``asked me if I had my gear with me, and I said I did. Then he pointed to the impact sight and said, `Go up there and tell me what is going on.'''
Gibbs led a crew of Fort Myer and Arlington County firefighters inside with a hose line. Considering the crack in the building, and seeing the firefighters were making little progress against the flames, Gibbs decided there was no need to place the firefighters' lives in jeopardy - and ordered them out. Within five minutes, ``there was a snap. Then you could hear it cascading down,'' Gibbs said. ``It hit the ground in a big thunder and shook and then it was all over. I guess timing is everything.''
After the collapse, firefighters went back with six hose lines – five lines from Arlington apparatus and another from Fort Myers’ rescue engine – in their struggle to contain the inferno, McKay said. The mighty exterior streams ``couldn’t get to the seat of the fire,’’ said McKay, who coincidentally, was attending counter-terrorism training in Washington when the terrorists struck.
The members of Arlington’s Rescue Squad 109 got within 10 feet of the jetliner’s remains while searching offices and conference rooms for survivors. They couldn’t get any further because of the fire. ``It was fed by jet fuel,’’ Bonzano said. ``It was rolling.’’
Chief Plaugher takes to the sky
With the initial response to the Pentagon in the capable hands of Arlington County Assistant Fire Chief James Schwartz, Arlington County Fire Chief Edward Plaugher took to the sky to get a bird’s eye view. According to the Post, Plaugher ``hurried to a U.S. Park Police helicopter.
Looking up at the pilot, Plaugher pointed to the words `FIRE CHIEF’ on his white hat and jabbed his finger toward the blackened sky. `I need to go up,’ he said.
``Hovering over the nation’s largest office building, the 54-year-old chief could see whatever had caused the destruction – he didn’t know then that it was an airliner – had penetrated three of the Pentagon’s rings,’’ the Post said. ``He also quickly got a handle on the extent of the fire’s reach. Plaugher relayed his concern to Schwartz that there could be further collapses. He also told his assistant to stick with what he was doing; deploying hundreds of firefighters and paramedics medics responding from all over the Washington region.’’
Plaugher wanted to see the big picture. So huge is the Pentagon that its corridors encompass more than 15 miles. ``What he recognized was that there was the need for somebody to be looking at all the pieces,’’ Schwartz said. ``What you got from where I was standing, while it was awesome in its scope, you couldn’t see the whole thing.’’
But it wasn't until that Friday, Sept. 14, that firefighters reached what Plaugher described as ``the heart of the crash site.''
''Anything like this I would not probably be describing it adequately to you,'' said Plaugher, quoted by the AP. ''It's just not capable of putting in words that type of destruction, that type of death that you're seeing.''
Secretary Rumsfeld pitches in
In the minutes and hours following the crash, countless civilians and military pitched in.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld helped the injured onto stretchers for about 15 minutes, according to The New York Times and other press reports.
A priest administered last rites to the dead.
Metro sent buses for the walking wounded.
Heavy-duty cranes arrived to aid in the rescue and recovery effort, and trucks from Home Depot shuttled lumber for shoring.
Soldiers raced shopping carts bottled water, soft drinks and other refreshments to the triage area from the Pentagon's QuikMart service station.
Private ambulances, normally used for routine transport between nursing homes, hospitals and clinics, were pressed into emergency service.
Retired firefighters – at least one who retired on medical disability 10 years earlier – reported for duty.
Captain Blunt's account
Captain Ed Blunt, an Arlington County Fire Department EMS supervisor, recounted Sept. 11 on JEMS.com, web site of the Journal of Emergency Medical Services:
I had already seen the first tower get hit on the news that morning. I was actually en route to a fire in Rosslyn (Va.) when the Pentagon was attacked. On my way out the door of the fire station, I warned my crew to stay alert. One of them just looked at me and said, “This is Arlington. Nothing like that will ever happened here.” When I saw him later that day at the incident, he told me he’d never say anything like that again.
Engine 101 actually saw the jetliner plow into the northwest side of the Pentagon. The radio crackled, “Engine 101—emergency traffic, a plane has gone down into the Pentagon. I made a quick U-turn and was on scene within a minute to a minute and a half of the initial impact. En route, I remembered my wife was scheduled to be on a flight to Dulles at 10 a.m.
People were just leaving their vehicles on Highway 110 and staring in disbelief. I wanted to put myself in a position where we wouldn’t be threatened by a secondary explosion. I set up triage, treatment and transport sectors in a grassy area on a hill with a good vantage point of the incident. I special ordered 20 paramedic units and a bus for the walking wounded, along with a couple of helicopters.
We weren’t alone on scene. There was an outpouring of help from military personnel—doctors, nurses, paramedics, EMTs, stretcher bearers. I also requested the response of our north EMS supervisor, Capt. Alan Dorn. He arrived quickly and did a fantastic job of managing these areas and coordinating with the military’s medical personnel. Chief James Bonzano arrived on scene and established an official EMS division.
Five or six minutes after my arrival, I traveled alongside the structure and came upon 13 serious burn victims. Many of them also had shrapnel wounds. There was one guy—I couldn’t tell if he was Army or Marine Corps because his uniform was so badly burned—who had used his hands to shield his face from the shrapnel, and his fingers had been cut clean off. But he wouldn’t let us treat him until we helped the others.
As we tended to those 13 wounded, we received an order to evacuate the area because of reports that another jet was coming up the Potomac.
We all agreed we weren’t going to leave those patients, so we switched to a rapid transport mode. We put multiple patients in Medics 102 and 105 and a park service helicopter and told them to just go to the hospital—with limited on-scene care.
We were fortunate in many ways. All our off-duty officers were at a mandatory seminar in Arlington, so they were within two minutes of the Pentagon. We also had other staff attending a nearby International Monetary Fund planning meeting. The military personnel on scene were extremely helpful in keeping the scene organized.
To aid in transport efforts, we had the police clear Highway 110 in both directions so we would have free highway access for rapid patient transport.
One problem we had was keeping military personnel away from the crash site. They felt compelled to try to run in and save their buddies, but the building was heavily involved in the fire. We had to use firefighters to help restrain them.
Once we did get inside, we were able to see the destruction for ourselves. It was extensive on the interior because of the inertia of the fire and fuel once the jet entered beyond the outer ring. The skin of the building doesn’t tell you squat about the damage. There were some areas where people hadn’t even been burned, but were killed by the forced inhalation of fumes.
We had 10 different fire and EMS agencies officially involved in the incident, and it went as well as it possibly could have. Like at any large incident, units self-dispatched themselves to the incident. Although only 20 units were officially requested, we ended up with 75 units on a scene that generated 92 patients.
Chief Bonzano's account
In an article in the Washingtonian magazine on the first anniversary of the attack, Battalion Chief Jim Bonzano reflected on Sept. 11:
The first hours - we call them the golden hours - that's when you have the best chance of finding people alive.
I'm so proud of our guys. A firefighter carries a 45-minute bottle of oxygen on his back. Guys would go in, use that whole bottle, come out and want to strap on another bottle and go back. Those are the kind of guys you want, guys who won't give up. But you had to jerk the reins, make sure we were sending in fresh personnel. Because they stop thinking about their own safety.
I have this friend, Captain Ed Blunt, who was there from the beginning. The day of the crash he said to me, ``Jimmy, Kay is flying back from Chicago.'' Kay is his wife. He didn't know if she was on that flight. Nobody knew where that plane was from. And I said, ``Eddie, we need to get you out. And he said, ``No I need to be here.'' And what he was telling me was that the task at hand was something he could handle, something he knew how to do. Think about his wife at that point was something he couldn't do.
`Full power, no flaps'
The Baltimore Sun newspaper, in its account of the attack, said:
The Pentagon, for half a century the nerve center of America's armed forces, became a casualty ... An Alexandria police officer said the jet was going "full power, no flaps," when it struck the Pentagon. ... Some compared the scene to a battlefield ... A grim Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters it was too early to have casualty figures."It will not be a few," he said. ... Local hospitals reported caring for 56 Pentagon workers, at least eight of them in intensive care.
Attempting a return to normality, Rumsfeld held his news conference in the Pentagon's briefing room. "The Pentagon's functioning. It will be in business tomorrow," he said. ... The Pentagon has no defense systems, such as anti-aircraft guns or missiles, that could counter air attacks ...
Rumsfeld said he was in his third-floor office was on the opposite side of the building when he felt the shock of the explosion. He immediately ran down to the damaged area and helped place the injured on stretchers. "They were bringing bodies out that had been injured, seriously injured," Rumsfeld said.
Then Rumsfeld went into the National Military Command Center, the Pentagon's nerve center, a warren of conference rooms and offices, some equipped with huge display screens for teleconferences among the top military brass. But even in those offices, there was smoke, Quigley said. The damaged Pentagon was placed on "threat condition delta," the highest security condition, he said.
Emergency personnel recalled
Off-duty Arlington County police, fire and 911 personnel were recalled, and the equivalent of 10 or more alarms summoned fire and rescue equipment from across metropolitan Washington to the Pentagon and to cover Arlington County’s fire stations. ``It was crazy,’’ recalled volunteer firefighter Reade Bush. ``Who would’ve thought Kensington, Maryland would be filling the Ballston station? Or Lake Jackson, Virginia filling Station 1?’’
Arlington County Managers Ron Carlee declared a state of emergency for the county, primarily to facilitate the arrival from urban search and rescue teams from Fairfax County, Virginia, Montgomery County, Maryland and the City of Virginia Beach.
Workers from other county agencies, from public works to public schools, were pressed into service. Lauren Callan, power plant supervisor for the school system, dispatched portable generators and trucks to the Pentagon, the Journal newspapers reported. Callan compared the experience to his service in the Vietnam War. ``The only difference was, in Vietnam, you'd occasionally get shot at,'' the former member of the Army Corps of Engineers said.
On Sept. 11, security was also stepped up across the Washington region.
Streets surrounding the White House were sealed off.
Federal workers were sent home.
National Guard units were activated to patrol streets.
National Airport closed, and flights were diverted to other fields. There was speculation whether the airport would ever reopen because of its proximity to Washington. (Fearing more hijackings, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered commercial flights nationwide to land. The FAA also instructed international flights to divert to Canada and other countries.)
Children in modular classrooms at the county's public schools were moved to safer quarters inside the main school buildings, though the county decided to keep schools open for the duration. School buses, most certainly, would have added to the congestion on roadways and slowed the response of mutual aid fire and rescue apparatus.
D.C. Fire Department
The District of Columbia Fire Department dispatched a second-alarm assignment moments after the crash, and D.C. Fire Chief Ronnie Fews placed the department’s ``Plan E’’ in effect, recalling off-duty firefighters, according to the DCFD.com. A third-alarm assignment from D.C. followed. The district’s fire companies also staged at Pennsylvania Avenue and 15th Street, Northwest, near the White House, as a precaution.
Staging areas were also established about a mile away from the Pentagon at Arlington County Fire Station No. 1 and down the street from the firehouse at the Thomas Jefferson Community Center and further to the north at Station No. 6 in Falls Church. Relief crews were assured, ``There'll be enough fire for everybody.''
The massive response recalled Dec. 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor, based on the following account of that attack from Honolulu Fire Chief William Blaisdell, and published in the book ``Fire in America!" by Paul R. Lyons of the National Fire Protection Association:
Within half an hour after the first attack, all off-duty firemen were called by radio broadcasts from three stations, and all but a few who live in rural Oahu had reported within two hours. Scores of volunteers thronged the stations, and workmen from other city departments were assigned as emergency firemen.
`It was pitch black'
As the flames darkened, firefighters advanced back inside the Pentagon. ``It was pitch black, and the walls seemed ready to buckle,’’ the Post said, recounting the experiences of Engine 101’s crew. ``Everything was scorched, and Kaiser faced heaps of debris everywhere she turned. In one spot, she saw a shirt ticked into a pair of dress slacks. But no body. On the second and third floors, charred people sat at their desks.’’
Reagan National Airport fire department’s mass casualty unit - designed for airplane crashes - supplied body bags.
On Sept. 11 and in the days following, Pentagon police ordered firefighters - fearful of another attack - to evacuate when aircraft neared the crash site. ``We didn’t know if there was another plane coming, bombs or what,’’ said Arlington volunteer firefighter Jane Beck, who was tending to the generator on Light and Air 103. ``I don’t ever remember feeling that much fear.’’ And yet she made the best of it. ``There were bomb dogs all over the place so I kept dog treats in my pocket for them,’’ Beck said.
There was little hope for finding survivors, and no one was quite sure how many people had died. At one point on the evening of Sept. 11, NBC News reported as many as 800 people may have died in the Pentagon. The final toll was much lower, but still daunting - one of the largest mass murders in U.S. history .
The fire, itself, wouldn’t die.
After the initial inferno was knocked down on Sept. 11, firefighters contended with flames and hot spots at the Pentagon, fed by jet fuel and mountains of rubble. ``It’s just stubborn, very difficult to get to and very difficult to extinguish,’’ said Plaugher, quoted by New York Newsday.
A statement issued by the county government on Sept. 12 said:
``The Arlington County Fire Department reports that the fires at the Pentagon are controlled. The fire is not yet considered extinguished, however. Crews will remain on a fire watch for the next three days in the event that other fires do spring up. Arlington County continues to support fire fighting and rescue operations at the Pentagon. There have been no serious injuries to Arlington County emergency workers.''
The blaze – in the five-story behemoth, made up of five concentric rings of offices – was declared out at 3 p.m. on Sept. 13.
Surveying the damage, a member of Congress from Kentucky, Representative Ken Lucas, said: "It hits you right in the pit of your stomach," according to the Associated Press.
Flames wouldn't die
The Pentagon’s concrete, masonry and slate roof made it a ``very, very difficult system to get through to extinguish,’’ Plaugher said. ``It takes a lot of cutting with special tools and equipment and then a lot of hand work by the firefighters to get up in there.’’
At the same time, other firefighters shored up the building and continued to search for survivors, even as hoped faded for bringing out anyone alive. ``The mood is very somber,’’ said Bernie Drake of the Salvation Army, quoted by Newsday. ``They’re kicking butt and working very hard and should be looked at as heroes. It’s a daunting task.’’
Many parts of the building were unstable. On the ground floor, ``there literally were no columns,’’ said Arlington Battalion Chief George Lyon, quoted by the AP. ``The whole structure was unsupported.’’
Captain Scott McKay said he found the absence of the columns ``most intimidating’’ – it meant his crews were in grave danger. And yet, only a few firefighters were injured during the operation, unlike the staggering loses in New York City. What’s more, after the twin towers fell, the Pentagon could reclaim the title ``The World’s Largest Office Building.’’
On Sept. 13, Shawn Kelley, chief fire marshal of Arlington County, reported that rescuers ``received a signal from the flight recorder of the commercial jetliner'' - the so-called ``black box.'' Kelley, quoted by the AP, said searchers know "the general area within the building where they can find the black box," but couldn't reach the site because of the fire and collapse.
The AP also reported that human remains from the Pentagon were flown to the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for identification.
President Bush visits crash site
President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Governor Gilmore and a number of other dignitaries visited the site, and met with fire and rescue personnel, police officers, soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen. During the president’s visit, firefighters unfurled a giant American flag - the garrison flag from the U.S. Army Band and Fort Myer - from the roof of the Pentagon near the crash site. The flag was lowered a month later, on Oct. 11, with full military honors.
According to a Pentagon press release:
President Bush visited the the Pentagon this afternoon and met with civilian and military workers involved in fire and rescue operations where a Boeing jetliner crashed into the west wall of the building.
Bush toured the site with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. The two men spoke with rescuers, firefighters and law enforcement personnel.
Firefighters had hung a large American flag from the roof over the side of the Pentagon near the site of the jetliner timpact.
Bush said he was overwhelmed by the devastation. He said he was visiting the site to see the damage for himself and to say thanks to those involved with the effort, "not only here but around the nation."
He wanted to thank the workers in New York City doing the same jobs. "I want to say thanks to the folks who have given blood through the Red Cross, I want to say thanks for the Americans who keep the victims in their prayers," Bush said.
The president inspected the destruction and told reporters that he spoke to Rumsfeld after the attack and the secretary said he had felt the blast move the Pentagon.
"Even though he was on the other side of the building, the building rocked," Bush said. "Now I know why."
That Friday, Chief Plaugher was among those in attendance with the president and first lady, the Rev. Billy Graham and other dignitaries at an interdenominational prayer service at the National Cathedral in Washington. Christian, Muslim and Jewish clergy participated in the service.
Volunteers, Red Cross, Salvation Army assist
At the Pentagon's ``Ground Zero,’’ Arlington County Fire Department volunteers assisted with medical triage, ventilation, debris removal, search and recovery, as well as staffing of rapid intervention teams for rescuing trapped firefighters. Other fire department volunteers assisted the FBI, photocopied maps for mutual aid companies covering Arlington fire stations, and served as navigators.
The volunteers’ Light and Air 103 was pressed into service for the duration, and illuminated the fire ground. Its generators were kept running around the clock. Its inventory of lights, tripods, electrical cables, and junction boxes was picked clean. Another volunteer unit, Utility 103 – driven by Marvin Binns, president of the Cherrydale Volunteer Fire Department – shuttled personnel to and from the scene for 16 hours on Sept. 11. The ladies auxiliary from Falls Church responded with Canteen 106.
Every little bit helped. ``Even those who performed support tasks behind the scenes are greatly appreciated,’’ said James Fortner, chief of the Arlington Volunteer Fire Department. ``Firefighting and EMS isn’t about glory and being in the spotlight.’’
Fire department volunteers visited hospitalized firefighters, transported food, water and supplies, maintained accountability rosters and staffed the staging areas. The volunteers’ Arlington Fire Journal published a ``Pentagon Extra.’’ All told, 52 volunteer members of the Arlington County Fire Department contributed 1,500 hours on Sept. 11 and in the aftermath of the disaster, with some taking annual leave from their jobs.
In addition to uncountable acts of bravery and duty at the Pentagon, there were many of love and kindness. A tent city sprouted up. The Salvation Army and Red Cross set up mobile kitchens, as did McDonalds and Burger King. A church group from North Carolina served hot meals. A search dog cut its paw, was treated by Army doctors and given a police escort to a veterinary hospital. A woman doled out dry socks to firefighters. ``I never thought much about socks before,’’ a firefighter said.
Accolades poured in. Children from across the U.S. sent handmade cards to the firefighters, crafted of crayons and construction paper. One boy’s card said: ``I know that of the reasons that you keep working is because you know somewhere in American a little boy or little girl is counting on you to rescue their parents and I know you will,’’ according to The Washington Times.
Grim search for bodies
Gradually, as the flames died down, the recovery effort intensified. Search and rescue teams from across the country came in to help. It was grueling and draining and depressing – and went on for more than a week. ``Most of the work is being done by hand and by shovels,’’ said firefighter Homer McElroy, quoted by the AP. Even after long days of 12-hour shifts, ``it’s tough to walk away,’’ said assistant chief Tom Carr of the Montgomery County Fire Department, quoted by The Washington Times.
While returning from a smoke inhalation call at Pentagon City aboard Arlington's Ambulance 101, Volunteer Lieutentant Jay Gremillion of Company 1 was moved by the sight of a small American flag ``perched high above the ruins and devastation’’ of the Pentagon.
``Clearly, one of the early tasks of the response teams was to make sure that the flag was flying – and sending the message that our resolve was strong,’’ Gremillion said. ``The small flag was later removed and a large four-story American flag was unfurled to coincide with President Bush’s visit. Still, the sight of that small flag on top of the building and near the impact point is the more poignant symbol in my mind of what we did and the mood of the rescuers – and indeed the country.’’(Sadly, Gremillion died of natural causes about a year later.)
At 7 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 21, the recovery effort officially ended and the site was declared a crime scene, with the Federal Bureau of Investigation taking over from the Arlington County Fire Department. Firefighters stayed on the scene to assist the FBI. After the investigation was completed, construction crews moved in – working almost around the clock – with a goal of completing much of their work by the first anniversary of the attack. The rebuilding effort was dubbed the ``Phoenix Project.’’
A statement issued by the county said:
``Responsibility for incident and site management at the Pentagon crash site was transferred from the Arlington County Fire Department to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) effective at 7 a.m., Friday, Sept. 21. It is anticipated that additional remains will be discovered during the course of the FBI’s investigation. Qualified mortuary personnel remain on site to process these remains.
``Arlington County Fire Department personnel will remain on site to continue to provide emergency protective measures for the FBI. Specifically, they will be providing firewatch and monitoring the safety of the structure as the FBI conducts its investigation. Arlington Police will also assist the FBI in evidence processing as well as provide security as needed.
``The Urban Search and Rescue team from New Mexico completed its last shift on site at 6 p.m., Thursday evening. The team from the Military District of Washington completed its last shift at 6 a.m. Friday morning. All areas of the Pentagon except for the C, D and E rings between the fourth and fifth corridors are being released to the Department of Defense.
``The Arlington Emergency Operations Center remains operational at a staffing level appropriate for this next phase of the operation.
``The FBI expects the crime scene investigation to last about a month. ''
Army Major General James T. Jackson, commanding general of the Military District of Washington, personally thanked the firefighters and civilian engineers at a crash site ceremony on Sept. 21. According to a military press release, Jackson told them: "You truly are the foundation upon which our country will continue to stand."
Rebuilding the fire service
Then the rebuilding began.
The Army declared Foam Tender 161, an E-One Titan 4x4 aircraft fire fighting and rescue vehicle, a total loss and acquired a replacement from Emergency One Inc., of Ocala, Florida. The new rig was delivered to the Fort Myer Fire Department about two weeks after the attack. Federal firefighter Alan Wallace - the man at ``Ground Zero" at "Zero Hour" - recovered from his injuries and returned to work.
On Sept. 22, while the wounds were still fresh, the county board approved $460,969 to upgrade or replace the county’s analog radio network with a digital system. Board Chairman Jay Fisette described the decision as ``a prudent and responsible decision at this time.’’
On Nov. 17, 2001, the county board announced plans to replace its front-line engines with seven new Class A, 1,250-gallon per minute pumps, through a $2.1 million lease with E-One. The new apparatus returned the traditional fire service color of red to the fire department. The county's fire apparatus had been yellow and white since the 1970s as part of a safety program.
Also on Nov. 17, the board approved $280,000 to purchase chemical, biological and radiological detection and decontamination equipment for the police and fire departments. ``The need for such equipment is apparent against the backdrop of the past two months,’’ Fisette said. The fire department also acquired tractor-trailer hazardous materials unit, Hazmat 101, and stocked a mass casualty unit with medical supplies.
(While discussing the issue of equipment, it should be noted there was some friction between the Arlington County Fire Department and the District of Columbia Fire Department as Virginia firefighters accused some of the district firefighters of absconding with their expensive equipment.)
Also in the months after Sept. 11, Assistant Chief James Schwartz, the incident commander at the Pentagon, was appointed to head the county's newly organized emergency management office, to better prepare Arlington for disaster preparedness and response. Among the achievements during his watch at the new department, a text and e-mail paging service for the citizens of the county called ``Arlington Alert.'' Schwartz returned to the fire department in 2004 as fire chief, replacing the retiring Ed Plaugher.
The Fort Myer Fire Department was also given more responsbility within the county fire system in the years after the Sept. 11 attack, with Rescue Engine 161 automatically responding on box alarms and other emergencies in Rosslyn and Crystal City.
'Heroes with grimy faces'
A Day of Remembrance was declared Oct. 11, with a service at Washington and Lee High School honoring the victims of the Pentagon as well as the rescuers. In November, Major General James Jackson of the Military District of Washington presented a commemorative plaque to Plaugher, honoring the work of the fire department.
Alexandria Fire Chief Thomas Hawkins, formerly chief in Arlington County, accepted a plaque for his city's department. ``It’s a double-edged sword,’’ Hawkins told the Journal newspapers. ``First of all, it means we had to go to the second worst disaster in order to get it, but we do appreciate getting recognition.’’ Alexandria rotated all 200 of its firefighters to the crash site.
The military also honored the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, which sent more than 400 firefighters and support personnel. In addition to providing personnel and equipment at the crash site, Fairfax County provided a special manpower unit, Engine 407, to the Clarendon station in the days after the attack.
In October, Bonzano, the battlion chief, represented the Arlington County Fire Department at a Columbus Day ceremony with President Bush and the first lady at the White House. Also in attendance, New York Fire Chief Daniel Nigro and the family of the Nigro’s predecessor, Chief Peter Ganci, who died with his men at the World Trade Center.
``The evil ones thought they were going to hurt us, and they did, to a certain extent,'' Bush said at that ceremony honoring Italian-Americans. `` But what they really did was, they enabled the world to see the true character and compassion and spirit of our country.''
During the German raids on London and other cities in World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called British firefighters ``Heroes with grimy faces.’’ The same can be said for the firefighters and rescuers at the Pentagon on Sept. 11.
It can also be argued that the attack on the Pentagon had a profound change on the Arlington County Fire Department, and that the history of the department should be viewed from the perspective of before and after Sept. 11.
As Bonzano said in the Washingtonian magazine: ``Now you're much more conscious about what a call could turn into. You don't see what we've seen without some kind of scar. There's no such thing as a routine call anymore.''
The aftermath for the `Heros of Sept. 11'
There's an old cowboy song by Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys about healing entitled ``Time Changes Everything.'' On the third anniversary of the Pentagon attack, Arlington's bravest were still on the mend, as The Washington Post reported:
For Arlington firefighters who for nearly two grueling weeks led the rescue and recovery efforts at the Pentagon, the world after Sept. 11 will really never be the same. They may not have lost any of their own that day, but the 343 New York firefighters who perished in the World Trade Center weigh heavily on their minds. They know what could have happened here. It tested them in ways few could have imagined.
``9/11 was a plane crash, a building collapse, a fire and a terrorist attack all in one,'' said Dodie Gill, who runs the county's highly praised employee assistance program and has worked closely with its firefighters since Day One.
A few have paid a heavy price for what they did and what they and saw - haunted espacially by the images of severed body parts, of faces literally pealed away like masks by an intensity of heat that even veterans had not felt before.
``We deal with death and destruction all the time, but this was a different thing,'' said (Arlington Fire Captain Mike) Staples.
So was the degree of deeply strained or severed marriages, panic that twice sent one firefighter into heart afribrillation, an attempted suicide and, at last count, a dozen early retirements provoked by emotional aftershocks.