At Pentagon, 'everyone was in shock'

Front page of the Europe edition showing the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York burning after the terror attack of September 11, 2001, before the two towers collapsed.


By PAT DICKSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 12, 2001

The Pentagon was being evacuated at approximately 9:40 a.m. Tuesday in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, when disaster struck.

An airliner smashed into the east side of the Pentagon, ripping a hole 80 to 100 feet wide, on all five floors as workers were fleeing the building. Hundreds were injured and were being treated at makeshift triage centers set up on the grounds.

Many more are believed trapped in the Pentagon, but could not be evacuated, as rumors of further strikes circulated. Stars and Stripes reporter Lisa Burgess was evacuating when the incident happened.

“I heard two loud booms — one large, one small,” she said. Hundreds of people rushed for the exits of the world’s largest office building after being ordered to evacuate. Stripes reporter Sandra Jontz, an emergency medical technician, was pressed into service.

“I treated one guy, he had second-and third-degree burns over 80 percent of his body, and another guy with less [burns]. At first, “Triage was [chaos], too many people were trying to call the shots,” Jontz said.

Vincent Martinez, 48, who works in the Navy Annex with a graphics and publications unit, raced to the scene after hearing the explosion and pulled a badly burned woman from the wreckage.

“Her eyes and eyelids, everything — was melted,” Martinez said. “Then I saw a staircase fall, and the building started to cave in.”

As efforts were better coordinated, triage teams and litter bearers were organized in teams, but a resilient blaze traveled along the Pentagon’s outer wall, consuming offices and preventing emergency workers from continuing evacuation. Emergency services from Washington National Airport Authority, Fort Belvoir (Va.), Walter Reed Army Medical Center (Washington, D.C.) and several Arlington city and county agencies were brought in to help.

Civilian surgeons and nurses from are hospitals also were rushed to the scene. At 1:30 p.m., medical personnel were organized in shifts to cover the next 48 hours. Crews were tearing down barriers on a nearby major route to facilitate evacuation of casualties.

Burgess, reporting by telephone from the scene, said that five hours after the blast, still no one was able to get into the building and none was evacuated in that time. “It’s basically a body-recovery operation; nobody has come out for hours … I see them bringing in dogs, I think body-sniffing dogs,” she said.

FBI agents also arrived soon after the blast and began combing the area for pieces of the plane’s wreckage. They commandeered photographers and equipment from Martinez’s unit, having photos taken of the entire area.

9:40 a.m., Tuesday

Two explosions were heard as employees were leaving the building. According to one witness, “what looked like a 747” plowed into the south side of the Pentagon, possible skipping through a heliport before it hit the building.

Personnel working in the Navy Annex, over which the airliner flew, said they heard the distinct whine of jet engines as the airliner approached.

One eye witness, Levi Stephens, 23, a courier for the Armed Forces Information Service, spoke of the crash: “I was driving away from the Pentagon in the South Pentagon lot when I hear this huge rumble, the ground started shaking … I saw this [plane] come flying over the Navy annex. It flew over the van and I looked back and I saw this huge explosion, black smoke everywhere.”

Army Sgt. Christopher McFarland, 27, who works at the Pentagon but is on leave this week, received a phone call at home soon after the incident. McFarland’s fiancée Sunni Wells, 24, works in an office where the plane hit.

“A friend called me, crying, and said there was an explosion at the Pentagon. She was on the phone with Sunni when she heard screaming and then the phone went dead. This is just horrible.”

McFarland has combat lifesaving training. “Everyone is saying I should go sit down, but I came in to help somebody; whether it be her or someone else. McFarland said they hoped to get married in April or May.

People in the area were just bewildered by events, Stephens said. “It looked surreal; like something out of a movie … everyone was in shock. Emergency personnel just stood in shock, no one was moving … Everything was in slow motion, nobody believed it at that point. Traffic just stopped. People froze; nobody ran,” he said.

“You know, I thought, ‘Let me get out of here,’ so I called back to the office, I was hysterical I guess, and drove away, and you could see debris on the highway (Interstate 395, approximately ¼ mile from the site of the crash).”

Asked about his thoughts as he gathered himself, Stephens said, “I immediately said ‘Thank you’ to God, cuz I was on my way into the Pentagon. If I hadn’t had to [make an unscheduled stop just before], I would’ve been in the building. I was supposed to be in the building.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Sandra Jontz and wire services contributed to this report.

This article appears as it did in the print edition of Stars and Stripes.


from around the web