Scene at the Pentagon After Terrorist Attack: `A War Zone'
by Glen Justice, Laura Smitherman and Tony Capaccio, with reporting by Dan Goldstein and John Rega, Bloomberg, 11 September 2001
Window washer James Mosley was four stories up on a scaffold outside the Navy Annex building abutting the Pentagon when the plane flew overhead.
"The building started shaking, and I looked over and saw this big silver plane run into the side of the Pentagon," said the 57-year old. "It almost knocked me off. I couldn't believe it."
At 9:41 a.m., a hijacked American Airlines jet gunned its engines and followed nearby I-395 highway lower and lower, clipping telephone poles and narrowly missing the control tower for the Pentagon's helicopter pad before it plowed into the side of the U.S. military's headquarters.
The plane tore a v-shaped gash about 40 feet wide in a new section of the five-story building called the "New Wedge" that houses Army and Navy offices. Some witnesses say the noise came first; some say the fire. Yet all describe a fireball followed by a rising blanket of black smoke.
At least 149 have been reported injured, either treated at a makeshift "triage center" outside the Pentagon or taken to local hospitals. No deaths have been reported although fire was still raging within the building hours after the crash, complicating rescue efforts.
"There probably are people trapped inside," said John Jester, chief of Defense Protective Services.
Firefighters, engineers, doctors and nurses arrived from Virginia, Maryland and as far away as Tennessee to begin what will inevitably be a daunting rescue job.
The Pentagon, military officials say, is like a city. It has 23,000 employees in 3.7 million square feet. It has its own newspapers, transportation and security forces.
The first goal is to knock down the fire, extinguishing burning fuel and debris -- no small task, according to Janet Clements, a spokeswoman with the Virginia Department of Emergency Medical Services.
"You definitely want to preserve the safety of your responders so you don't want to send them into an area that is burning," she said.
`A War Zone'
Watching from outside, 37-year-old Donna Baez described the scene immediately after the crash as "a war zone, like the ones you see in the movies.
"You could smell it," she said. "You could taste it. The plane took out a section of the Pentagon, and the flames were spreading, raging out of control. It's unbelievable."
`I Saw A Fireball'
The Pentagon was ground zero of a crisis that triggered the immediate shutdown of official Washington.
"I saw a fireball before I heard any noise," said John Janicki, a civilian employee with Radian, a security firm that works with Pentagon. He said he was in a fourth-floor office on side of building that was hit.
"I ran down the hall and saw a wall blow in," he said.
Bill Wright, an Army civilian employee, said he was on the first floor in a room near the blast. "We heard a large boom," he said. "I felt something fall out of the ceiling and hit me in the head."
Wright said the next thing he knew, he was in a smoke-filled corridor without his glasses. There he groped until an Air Force officer helped him from the building.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was in his office "when he felt the concussion," Jester said. He ran to the crash site and helped put people on stretchers, then went to the military command center which, though smoky, was deemed fit for duty.
Others streamed from the building in military uniforms and civilian clothes. "I heard a blast, and we were immediately told to evacuate," said Army Staff Sergeant. Chauncey Reed, 29.
"It was chaos," he said. "Once we got outside, we just wanted to get as far away as we could. People were running from every direction. With the first blast, I didn't know if it was a bomb or what. My initial reaction was if there was one, there could be another."
`We're Under Attack Here'
Tom Trapasso, 41, lives less than a mile from the Pentagon and has become accustomed to helicopters and commuter planes flying overhead. But he knew this was no fly-by.
"I was out on my deck talking to my mom when I saw the plane," he said. "There were no wheels down. It was screaming loud and going very fast. I said `Oh my god,' and ran into the house to take cover and heard the loud explosion and felt the ground shaking. I told my mom: `We're under attack here.'"
In the Navy Annex, 45-year-old Tyrone Ford and his maintenance crew were working on the fire alarm system when the jet crashed.
"I heard something fly low overhead," he said. "You could feel the vibrations through the building. I never heard a plane fly that low. It kind of scares you," he said. "All of a sudden, I ducked down and looked out the window and saw a big ball of flame."
Copyright © 2001 Bloomberg
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.