Pulling Together

The Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon killed 184 people. The Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon killed 184 people. AP file photo

At the Pentagon, generals and privates, executives and laborers found themselves side by side on a front line none could previously have imagined.

Army Brig. Gen. Clyde Vaughn was attending a morning meeting in Northern Virginia Sept. 11 when his cell phone rang with an urgent call from his boss. The message: Return to the Pentagon immediately. Terrorists have attacked the World Trade Center.

Vaughn, the Army's deputy operations director, coordinates military support to civil authorities during emergencies. While Vaughn raced to his car, Americans across the country began turning on their televisions to watch in disbelief as a commercial airliner slammed into the World Trade Center's south tower, minutes after the north tower had similarly been hit. Before the morning was over, millions of television viewers would watch in horror as the famous twin towers imploded, one after the other, leveling the heart of the financial district.

As he drove north on Interstate 395 toward the Pentagon, Vaughn thought about the enormity of the task awaiting him in lower Manhattan. The city probably would need security forces, medical support, communications equipment, engineers, help transporting people and supplies and perhaps much more.

He had just turned onto an exit ramp that would take him to one of the Pentagon's sprawling parking lots when he noticed a commercial airliner near the Georgetown skyline that was clearly out of place. Before his mind could register what was happening, he watched what would turn out to be another hijacked jet-American Airlines Flight 77-make a sharp turn and plow into the Pentagon, flying so low to the ground it sheared the tops off light poles before plunging into the building and exploding in an enormous fireball.

Vaughn pulled his car over and sprinted toward the gaping, flaming hole. Dozens of employees, many carrying co-workers too badly burned and injured to walk, were climbing out of the burning wreckage that had been the west face of the building. Military personnel and civilian employees were attending to their colleagues despite the tremendous danger posed by the collapsing building and exploding jet fuel. "What I saw as I neared there was an unknown number of acts of heroism and courage," Vaughn says. "I really don't know how to describe it. You have several emotions. One is a tremendous amount of anger. Your second reaction is emotional. Then third, you feel this overwhelming sense of helplessness."

The attack, which President Bush would later describe as the opening salvo in the first war of the 21st century, obliterated the meaning of rank and position and redefined battlefield operations. Generals and privates, senior executives and laborers, civilians, contractors and military personnel found themselves side by side on a front line none could previously have imagined.

At the Pentagon and in New York City, across government and across the country, federal workers and military service members pulled together to aid rescue operations; conduct a worldwide criminal investigation; secure government buildings and the nation's airspace and then to begin rebuilding commerce, federal services and the country's morale. As firefighters and engineers continued to clear the rubble, government employees began regrouping for a long, difficult effort to combat and prevent terrorism.

So Many Heroes

Inside the Pentagon, as thousands of employees began evacuating, Kathy Greenwell watched all hell break loose across a bank of computer screens in the Building Operations Command Center where she is an operator. Phones started ringing, 355 fire alarms went off simultaneously, and the computers, which monitor such things as air quality, water pressure, temperature and electrical systems, started spitting out information faster than anyone could read it.

Dennis Smith, a building inspector and former Marine, was smoking a cigarette in the center courtyard when he heard the roar of engines and looked up in time to see the tail of a plane seconds before it exploded into the building. He took off toward the crash to help get people out of the building. "I looked up to the third floor-there were people banging on the windows. The smoke was filling up, and then they were just gone."

Metal fire doors began automatically closing off corridors. Dust from pulverized Sheetrock and thick smoke from burning fuel began to fill the air throughout the building. And because the aircraft had hit the Pentagon's emergency power generator, there were no emergency lights in stairwells or corridors to help lead people to exits and safety, says Steve Carter, assistant building manager in the Federal Facilities Division, the office responsible for Pentagon operations.

The Building Operations Command Center soon lost its cable TV connection, Greenwell says, which meant that while most Americans were watching the disaster unfold on television, Pentagon building personnel could see little beyond the smoke-filled corridors. For some, it would be a day or longer before they would get outside and see the collapsed façade that dominated images of Washington projected around the world.

Broken water pipes were flooding the Pentagon's west side, and live electrical wires threatened to electrocute both rescuers and those trapped in the building. Matthew Morris, the power generator shop supervisor, knew immediately what had to be done. Finding his way through dark hallways filling rapidly with smoke and water, Morris got to a critical electrical vault and shut down four 13,800-volt circuit breakers.

"He took his life in his hands to do that," says co-worker John Robinson, describing how Morris' actions likely saved many lives. The force of the crash and resulting explosion had blown the metal doors and a wall out of the vault. The force of the electricity flowing through the system was so powerful, it took tremendous strength for Morris to shut down the huge breakers on his own, Robinson says. "If he hadn't done that, a lot of us probably wouldn't be here."

In those first minutes after the terrorists crashed the 757 into the Pentagon, hundreds of ordinary people performed extraordinary acts of courage. A Pentagon building contractor crawled through choking smoke on his hands and knees through four floors of offices near the crash site, helping people evacuate. He finally left the building only moments before that section of the building collapsed in a pile of smoldering rubble. An Army officer who lost part of one hand insisted that others get help first. Countless men took off their shirts, tore them into strips and soaked them in water to pass around as makeshift face masks in the burning smoke.

Anthony Freeman, a building inspector with 18 years at the Pentagon, and Daniel Murphy, an electrical engineer, groped their way through blackened tunnels and smoke-filled hallways to evacuate survivors and shut down critical systems. Air handling systems had to be stopped and restarted to prevent carbon monoxide and other poisons from filling the building. The chilled-water system had to be repressurized to provide water for firefighting and to power air-conditioning units that kept critical computer systems from overheating. Electricity had to be shut down and brought back on.

"There were a lot of heroes that day," Carter says. "We had about 60 people here-they never evacuated. Most of them would just tell you they were only doing their job, but they were heroes on Tuesday."

Like a doctor treating a patient in intensive care, the Federal Facilities Division staff monitored the Pentagon's vital signs and kept power flowing to the National Military Command Center-the central nervous system of military operations. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, after helping to evacuate employees at the crash site, immediately joined other senior leaders at the command center to monitor the situation and plan the military response.

Grief 'Beyond Description'

Officers in the Navy Command Center-where the service monitors fleet operations around the world-were in the midst of planning the Navy's response to the terrorist attack in New York, when, in an instant, their own offices were decimated. Navy leaders almost immediately regrouped in a section of the National Military Command Center, before moving operations to a secure facility outside the Pentagon.

While Pentagon employees scrambled to maintain communications and sustain the building, U.S. military installations around the world went on the highest alert, securing bases and deploying aircraft to patrol the skies around major metropolitan areas. Brig. Gen. Vaughn began planning and mobilizing military support to state and local authorities in New York, where the destruction would prove unimaginable. And military service leaders began estimating what forces they might need in the days and weeks ahead. By week's end, President Bush authorized the call-up of 50,000 Guard and Reserve troops.

A day after the attack, in a sobering message to all Defense Department personnel, Rumsfeld said, "It is my duty as head of this department to tell you that more, much more will be asked of you in the weeks and months ahead. This is especially true of those who are in the field. We face powerful and terrible enemies. Enemies we intend to vanquish so that moments of horror like yesterday will be stopped.

"Let us never forget what this great institution is about. With its hallways filled with the pictures of Medal of Honor recipients and our country's great military leaders, this building is a place dedicated to the ethos of heroism. Heroes have gone before us. Here at the Pentagon-yesterday-heroes were here again," Rumsfeld said.

One hundred and twenty-four employees and contractors lost their lives at the Pentagon on the morning of Sept. 11. Another would die later in the hospital, and officials would learn that two others were among the passengers on hijacked airliners. Some of those who died were war planners and many wore the uniforms of those who have pledged their lives to defend the United States. But most were civilians-the budget analysts, personnel managers, clerks and administrators who keep the engine of the military running. None of them could have anticipated the horror that would visit the offices and corridors of their daily lives.

"Our grief is beyond description," Rumsfeld said.

This article was originally published Oct. 1, 2001, in Government Executive magazine, with a different photo. 

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