Army media specialists work nonstop without offices

Among the people glued to television sets in the minutes after the World Trade Center was attacked on Sept. 11 were media relations specialists in the Army's public affairs division, who spend their days talking to journalists all over the world. At 9:45 that morning, none of them knew that within minutes, they'd become part of the story.

The media group, which also trains the Army's top brass on how to deal with the press, received a direct hit to its offices when American Airlines Flight 77, hijacked by terrorists, rammed through three outer rings of the Pentagon's west side. Two trainers working 100 feet from the blast used their bare hands to claw through crumbling walls and climb over burning debris to escape with minor injuries. The Army media staff were the only media team of all the services to be displaced from their offices as a result of the crash.

The Army media team spent three days after the attack responding to a deluge of requests from journalists around the world for first-person accounts of what happened at the crash site, said Col. Tom Begines, chief of the media relations team. Now the team has shifted to its customary role, feeding an international clamor for news on how the U.S. military plans to combat terrorism worldwide.

Barred from their offices, which are part of an FBI crime scene, media relations staffers are working in temporary quarters in nearby federal buildings, the basement of the Pentagon and from their own homes, and without full access to phones and computers.

Business as usual having quite literally gone up in smoke, the media specialists have pulled double and in some cases triple duty. Those who had "combat life saver" training to give emergency backup medical support worked with other Pentagon employees on Sept. 11 to carry stretchers and give first aid to the wounded in a makeshift triage area outside the building.

After the blast, some media relations staffers went to the nearby Hoffman Building in Alexandria to assist the Army Personnel Command and the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel in notifying next of kin as the remains of those killed were identified. That's not typically a spokesperson's job, but the staffers were familiar with the procedures involved in such a delicate task, so they went to help.

In the wake of the attack, media relations personnel went into 24-hour-a-day mode in the Army Operations Center in the basement of the Pentagon. They've yet to stop. Soldiers with video cameras shot crash site footage that was used to brief military leaders and the press. Two Army photographers snapped pictures that international media organizations used in their reporting.

While all of the media relations personnel survived the attack, their work has been made more difficult because some of those killed were colleagues and friends. As of Tuesday, 35 of the 75 Army personnel listed as missing were confirmed killed in the attack, Begines said.

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