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At the Pentagon, fear and anger

By M.E. SPRENGELMEYER and RYAN ALESSI, Scripps Howard News Service

WASHINGTON - The plane that slammed into the Pentagon Tuesday also blasted America's sense of security.

It was something only Hollywood could have dreamed up: The nation under attack, the Pentagon in flames. But here were military officers in full dress uniform, dazed and cowering as they abandoned their offices and ran.

''It's the symbolic bunker of safety. It isn't safe anymore,'' said Marty Lodge of Arlington, Va., who was awakened by the 9:45 a.m. explosion.

The Pentagon's 20,000 employees began their work day Tuesday much like the rest of America, by watching shocking reports of airplanes that smashed into the World Trade Center in New York.

''I said, 'There's no way to defend against that and they could get the Pentagon if they wanted to,''' said David Young, who works for the Defense Contract Management Agency. ''Those were my words five minutes before this happened.''

Brenda Davis and her colleagues in the Army's congressional liaison office deep in the Pentagon's bowels were glued to CNN. Then her office shook, just like those in New York. ''We heard a big, loud crash,'' she said, shaken and near tears. ''Everyone was saying, 'We have to get out, we have to get out.'''

Firefighter Alan Wallace was standing outside his fire station when he looked across the nearby interstate and saw a white airplane with orange and blue trim heading almost straight at him. It slammed into the building just a couple hundred feet from him. ''When I felt the fire, I hit the ground,'' he said.

Inside a courtyard deep inside the Pentagon, program analyst Peggy Mencl (cq) heard the blast. ''The doors blew out and debris just came flying out from the doors,'' Mencl said. ''It blew me 10 feet.'' She was uninjured but still had debris in her hair.

In the labyrinthine corridors of the Pentagon, it was chaos, said Richard Bristow, a civilian Air Force clerk. ''We heard the impact and the building shook. People were pushing each other to get out. Panic is panic.''

At a media briefing, Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clark told the story of Capt. Lincoln Liebner, who was outside the Pentagon when the blast took place. He rushed into the building to help. His hands were burned, and after he was taken away to a hospital for treatment, he returned later in the day to do more.

Outside the Pentagon, thousands of misplaced workers meandered around, looking for co-workers or waiting for orders of what to do next. Some were being helped along, suffering from stress or minor wounds. One man collapsed, bleeding from the ankle.

Several times, official security personnel swept through the crowd shouting that there were rumors of another hijacked jet on its way toward the Pentagon and ordering everyone to get away from the building immediately. ''Oh, my God,'' several said as the mob started running.

Even high-ranking military officials, forced with everyone else to abandon their offices, were shaken. But they were also angry. ''We have a variety of plans for a variety of things,'' said Naval Rear Adm. Craig Quigley. ''But what you're seeing here is a full assault on the United States of America.''

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was in his office inside the Pentagon when the blast happened with no warning. Rumsfeld rushed to the area of the blast and for 15 minutes helped load the wounded onto stretchers. He then retreated to the National Military Command Center where senior military leaders pondered the question: What Now.

About 90 minutes after the explosion, rescue teams formed in sets of four to wade through the deeper rubble. They enlisted Pentagon employees and average bystanders in the grim task of loading stretchers.

Dustin Warr was on his way home from graduate classes at Georgetown University when he walked beside the Pentagon and was plucked into the rescue line.

''I kind of got stuck with the teams and I thought I was going to go in and bring out injured,'' he said after officials told him to leave. ''I just looked around and there were big chunks of ripped-off metal all over.''

As rescue workers pulled out uncounted victims from the Pentagon building, a caravan of water and juice from nearby convenience stores streamed in by car and by grocery cart. Medical staff from across Maryland, D.C. and Virginia were forced to load victims on everything from Dulles Airport buses to Walter Reed Medical Center transport.

By noon, fires had spread through the Pentagon's outer ring as far as 20 offices to the left of the crash site. On the other side of the rubble, just a few offices were blackened. Construction crews had just finished renovating that part of the building, adding fire-retardant insulation and blast protection. The side where fires burned was to be next.

Nicholas Holland, an engineer with AMEC Construction Management of Bethesda, Md., had spent the last two years working to reinforce the walls. Two summers ago, a blast wall of reinforced steel and concrete was installed right where the plane hit. It stood for 25 minutes after it was hit before collapsing, long enough for people to escape, Holland said.

''It did its job. But now we're going to have to go back and do it all over again.''

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,http://www.shns.com)

Publication date: 09-11-01
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