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Commentary: Remembering the honored dead at Pentagon crash site
by Sgt. Nate Orme
214th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

Pentagon, Sept. 26, 2001 — Fifteen days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, the gaping wound left in south side of the Pentagon appears cleaned and sterilized. Gone are the teams of rescue and recovery personnel wearing breathing masks and bio-suits while carrying out the grim evidence of an unspeakable crime that left 189 dead. Gone are the broken pieces of concrete, the twisted metal, the charred furniture. Gone, too, are the Army engineers who constructed dozens of wooden box cribs to shore up the busted and damaged columns that hold up the floors of the five-story edifice.

The FBI finally turned over the area to Maj. Gen. James T. Jackson, Commander, U.S. Army Military District of Washington, in a special ceremony Sept. 26 in front of the point of damage. Officially, the area is no longer a working FBI crime scene. But for America, it will always be the scene of a crime — a moment that will forever survive in our national consciousness, as do other attacks that now live on in infamy. Only the perpetrators' twisted ideology will rest forgotten "in history's unmarked grave of discarded lies," as President Bush stated in his address to Congress and the American people on the attacks.

Yes, we will surely remember the Pentagon and related World Trade Center attacks, just as we do the Alamo.

"The American people have been well represented here," said Jackson at the Pentagon hand-off. "Tragedy has a way of bringing out the best in Americans. With great professionalism, many people and agencies came together to do a job that has never been done before. We leave with the relationships we have established here, we just wish it were under better circumstances."

Inside the undamaged majority of the Pentagon, soldiers, Marines, airmen, sailors and civilians continue serving as before the attack. One could hardly guess the calamity that had transpired here from viewing the seemingly normal operations in this massive complex. But one cannot see the knots of anger and horror felt by so many here, spawned by this bizarre and unfathomable attack — a too-decent description were this uttered in private company.

Standing directly outside the impact area, the gap looks rather small in relation to the wide sides of the edifice. The collapsed floors have been removed, and the evidence of violence has been extricated. From a distance, it looks merely like a demolition zone. Only viewing up close begins to tell the full impact of the story now.

Walking into the building using the entrance created by the Boeing 757, telltale signs of a strange occurrence become apparent. Plumbing pipes hang from the ceiling, broken and shattered like a plastic cup. Wires upon wires drape down from the ceiling haphazardly, without direction. The walls deep within the building, away from the area of direct impact, are blackened and charred, evidence of the fire that raged on, fed by the fuel-laden aircraft that earlier had lifted from nearby Dulles International Airport only to be diverted in a perversion of its peaceful mission.

Damp books, some singed around the edges, lie in a pile, gathered and placed by rescuers. Also salvaged, a two-foot-diameter cast-iron shield representing the Army Reserve is blackened by fire but hardly the worse for wear. Perhaps one day it will be placed as is, thoughtfully and appropriately, with a plaque of remembrance. For now, it leans silently against an unlit wall.

Eerily and thankfully, the destruction suddenly stops, and offices nearly untouched but for water damage adjoin offices almost completely destroyed. A desk remains in one, and on it an intact bowl of blackened fruit.

On the inside wall of the second ring of the Pentagon, a nearly circular hole, about 12-feet wide, allows light to pour into the building from an internal service alley. An aircraft engine punched the hole out on its last flight after being broken loose from its moorings on the plane. The result became a huge vent for the subsequent explosion and fire. Signs of fire and black smoke now ring the outside of the jagged-edged hole.

The focus of the fire wrought destruction diagonally in two directions, aligned with the angle of the fuel-filled wings at impact. The left wing was tilted at such an angle it scraped on the ground on its way toward the Pentagon. The first floor was mainly damaged to the left of the missing chunk of building, while the second floor burned mainly to the right. Some personnel on the floors above the impact managed to escape, running down the hall, first one direction, only to be turned back by smoke, and then running in the other direction to safety. The hall they ran down doesn't exist now. It disappeared in the collapse of the third, fourth, and fifth floors soon after the raging fire spread through the area.

As part of the turnover ceremony, Arthur Eberhard, the special agent in charge at the Pentagon site, accepted the flag from the Army's 3rd U.S. Infantry, "The Old Guard." Eberhard spoke a few words in thanks before asking permission to play a recording of a song he said had become increasingly important to him-"God Bless the USA."

Eberhard's boss, Van A. Harp, assistant director in charge of the FBI Washington Field Office, said the FBI was "overwhelmed by the support provided by the service members, firefighters, police and relief organizations that have worked with us over the last two weeks." Harp continued, "Our job would have been more difficult without the selfless service of these brave men and women."

The Pentagon is ready to be rebuilt. A new $145 million contract has already been granted to Hensel Phelps Construction Co. of Chantilly, Va. The recovery work continued for a time in the North Parking Lot, where various agencies, such as the 311th Mortuary Affairs Quartermaster Company, an Army Reserve unit called up from Puerto Rico, do the critical work of collecting personal effects and combing for evidence on the attackers. Now they, too, are gone.

There have been hundreds of truckload of material carted from the site - probably 300 to 400 hundred, amounting to approximately 10,000 tons of debris, said FBI agent John S. Adams, team leader for the evidence recovery team, part of the FBI's Washington field office.

Adams also said the Army engineers used approximately five linear miles of 6x6 lumber as shoring to prop up the floors around the impact zone. When one looks at the dozens of wooden piers, built up with horizontally laid timbers crisscrossed to rise in a rectangular cage from floor to ceiling, such a number seems reasonable.

For many, viewing the Pentagon is an attempt to bring some type of understanding, if not healing. But it still does not begin to answer the question of why. Yes, this is a military building, but the World Trade Center towers were filled with civilians, as were the aircraft commandeered to fly here and to New York to wreak a destruction the hijackers must somehow have savored. And those in the Pentagon served a democratic nation whose ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are practiced with a principled regard for the rights of other nations and peoples.

Was it insanity? Are these inherently evil minds? Or were those who destroyed the spark of life and divinity in themselves through their act themselves victims of a twisted indoctrination by freedom's enemies?

Now, it is only right to ignore the terrorists' ignorant rantings and pragmatically defend against them, and capture and their leaders, as has been promised.

"We are not deceived by their pretenses to piety," our president said. "We have seen their kind before. They are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century.

"By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions — by abandoning every value except the will to power — they follow in the path of fascism, and Nazism, and totalitarianism," Bush declared.

Only the blind of eye and spirit would find moral equivalency between the life-affirming values of the United States and the homicidal goals of the terrorists. A regime that would support those who would wage war through these means would itself persecute those in the margins of its culture. This is not the path the United States will take. Why? Because our Constitution is a living document, broadly inclusive, and ensconced in the hearts, minds and institutions formed here.

The conclusion is obvious to all except the most wanton. May the murderous worldview of terrorism be defeated and forgotten, and may our dead always, always be remembered and honored. God Bless America.

(Orme, an Army Reserve soldier, spent two weeks at the Pentagon crash site reporting on soldier recovery work on site.)

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