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September 14, 2001
FMMC firefighters respond to terrorist action at Pentagon
by Michael Norris
|Photo by Michael Norris
Still in his hospital gown, Alan Wallace, a Fort Myer firefighter who was at the Pentagon when a plane crashed into it Tuesday morning, reflects on the tragedy outside the post fire station later in the day.
Pentagram assistant editor
A force protection exercise scheduled for FMMC next week had been cancelled, and some of its participants were breathing a sigh of relief. And then it happened. Hijacked commercial airplanes were deliberately flown into New York City's World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Arlington County Tuesday morning in the worst act of terrorism the United States has ever experienced.
Fort Myer, located approximately a mile from the Pentagon, became a hub of activity as it, other regional installations and government offices were shut down for fear of becoming additional targets. As black smoke billowed from the Pentagon over the Arlington National Cemetery tree line, non-essential employees at Fort Myer and other government offices were sent home. Soldiers with guns and helmets traversed the post scrupulously checking identification cards, looking for anything suspicious. A media center was set up at Henderson Hall, adjacent Fort Myer, to brief reporters.
The air was rife with rumors of what was happening. As the day progressed, remaining post employees would hear snippets of unconfirmed news reports about additional targets.
Alan Wallace of the FMMC Fire Department was one of three post firefighters on scene at the Pentagon when a hijacked American Airlines jet deliberately flew into the building.
The firefighters had arrived there at about 7:30 a.m. as part of the routine duty of providing fire protection for the Pentagon heliport and tower in the event of an accident.
"Every day they have an aircraft flying, we're there," said Wallace.
Wallace had just positioned a new fire-crash rescue vehicle so that it was pointed toward the heliport, where rescue personnel could get it to an aircraft in a hurry if they had to. He had walked around to the front of the truck with firefighter Mark Skipper when he saw the plane heading straight for the building near 9:40 a.m.
It was probably 200 yards away and about 25 feet off the ground, he said.
"I just happened to look up and see it," he said. "I didn't hear it. After I saw it, I became aware of the sound.
At that point Wallace yelled to Skipper, "run!" and both firefighters took off. Skipper headed toward an open area in the direction of Fort Myer and Walace dove under the rescue vehicle as the plane's impact was being felt.
The third firefighter, Dennis Young, was inside the building when the plane hit but emerged unscathed shortly after the crash.
"I heard the sound of the engine and then the crunch," Wallace said.
He said he felt the explosion and that from his position he was able to see debris falling all around him. He said he thinks he lay under the truck for about five seconds before calling out to see if Mark was okay. The two of them located each other and Young emerged from a decimated part of the building. The firefighters surveyed the scene and got busy.
Understating the circumstances, Wallace said, "I could see we had a lot of work to do."
Wallace's first impulse was to get into the truck to pull it away from the building so it could be used to fight the fire raging at the crash site. Not only was the truck on fire, it didn't respond when Wallace pressed the accelerator. "The back end was severely damaged," he said.
When he realized he wasn't going anywhere in the truck, he started collecting some of the gear stowed inside, including lights, fire extinguishers, a radio and breathing apparatus, which he passed to those on the scene.
Wallace had not even been dressed in his firefighting garb when the plane hit. When he tried to retrieve them in the Pentagon fire station, he found the pants he had laid out were on fire and his boots were filled with rocks and other debris.
Hearing screams around him, Wallace, Skipper, Young and others arriving on the scene helped pull 10 to 15 people out of a Pentagon building window and then tried to clear fire from a doorway, dousing the flames with water canons.
"Everywhere people were yelling trying to give directions for people to get out," he said
Other fire departments arrived on the scene, including companies from Arlington and Fairfax counties, Falls Church and Alexandria, as well as an additional eight Fort Myer firefighters, who happened to be on post that day receiving training in airfield fire and rescue techniques.
The gist of the training is that you try to "be as offensive as you can before you're forced to become defensive," Wallace explained.
Amidst the melee, Wallace thought he heard the same screech of engines that had preceded the crash, and thought for a moment that there might be a second plane, as had happened at the World Trade Center. Firefighters are trained to watch out for secondary devices in such terrorist incidents.
"The sound of those engines were horrible," Wallace recalls. "I thought it was another plane, but it turned out to be a helicopter."
At some point that morning, Wallace, who has 21 years of firefighting experience, became aware of a pain in his upper arm that prevented him from doing much more heavy lifting. He had been burned. The back of the same arm was sensitive to sunlight, so he found himself trying to walk backwards to avoid further exposure. Skipper, meanwhile, he said, "got a pretty good dose of smoke." Young was uninjured.
After 45 minutes of combating the jet fuel-fired blaze, Wallace and Skipper were treated in a triage set up underneath a Washington Boulevard overpass tunnel at the perimeter of the Pentagon, while reinforcements took over the job. The two were later treated at Arlington Memorial Hospital, where they also received mental health counseling relating to their ordeal.
Even with the devastation, Wallace said the fact that he and other firefighters were on the scene made a difference. "I feel we were able to lessen people's injuries and get them out," he said.
Despite being a Vietnam veteran and an operating room corpsman in a Navy hospital in Da Nang, Wallace said what he experienced at the Pentagon was "the most traumatic thing I've ever been through. It's something I'll never forget."
Unsure whether the firefighters were aware of the bombings in New York City less than an hour earlier, Fort Myer Fire Chief Charles Campbell called his men on the telephone minutes before the plane crash, telling each of them "to be on their toes."
Campbell, who also fought the Pentagon fire and assisted in the rescue effort, said the scene was "probably the biggest devastation I've seen in my 30 years of fire service. I've never experienced anything of this magnitude."
Seven or eight hours after the conflagration, when it looked as if the fire was under control, Campbell was worrying about its after effects on his men.
In a meeting earlier in the day, he said FMMC Commander Col. Christopher Essig had stressed the importance of monitoring workers affected by the devastation.
"Be aware of your people after this whole thing is over," he quoted Essig as saying. "After this ordeal we need to make sure we're taking care of people with debriefings and stress management."
The impact of witnessing such an event doesn't always hit you immediately, Campbell said.
"Sometimes you have to block it out because you have a job to do."