Sept. 28 - The crash of American Airlines Flight 77 into the southwest portion of the Pentagon on Sept. 11 brought out the hero in many of those who lived through it or rushed in to help. These are some of stories of extraordinary people who put their own safety and fear aside long enough to help others, becoming the difference between life and death for so many. An excerpt from our commemorative issue, ‘The Spirit of America.’
IT WAS SHORTLY before 9 a.m., Tuesday, Sept. 11, when Lt. Col. Ted Anderson walked into his office at the Pentagon, heard the news about two commercial jets crashing into the World Trade Center in New York and felt the hair on the back on his neck stand on end. “Call it intuition, call it 19 years in the Army,” says Anderson, 41, who had served as a paratrooper for 17 years before beginning his current stint in the Army’s office of legislative liaison. Nervous energy drove him down the hall to the nearest security point, where he asked guards to “call their supervisor and ask unequivocally for an upgrade in security. I said we were a tremendous target for terrorists, and they agreed.”
He was finding it difficult to focus on work, when his wife, a sixth-grade teacher in Fayetteville, N.C., called at about 9:40 a.m. She asked him to talk to her class about the New York incidents. “I told her it appeared too well coordinated to be coincidence, it was probably terrorist activity, but we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about who did it,” he said. “I reminded her how we had rushed to judgment on Oklahoma City.” I heard her say to the class, ‘Yes, we remember Oklahoma City.’ Then there was this boom! And the whole building rocked. The ceiling caved in. The electricity went out. I told my wife, ‘There’s been a bombing, I’ve got to go.’ And I started screaming for everyone to get out.
“When you’re in the military, your first thought is to immediately get out in case there’s a second explosion. I ran out in the corridor and people were running out of their offices. Everyone was in shock, yelling, ‘What was that?’ The Desert Storm veteran barked orders, screaming at people to get out of the building. There were a couple of generals standing there, looking at each other, and I ordered them out too,” he said. Anderson then ran down the hall to an emergency exit and out into the parking lot. As the crowd surged away from the building. Anderson looked to his left and “everything I could see, as far as I could see, were chunks of steel, some huge, some small, and I immediately knew it was an airplane.” As Anderson ran toward the debris, he looked over his shoulder and noticed two strangers, an Army sergeant and civilian, had joined him. Without exchanging words, they became a team. “We ran to the end of our building, turned left and saw nothing but huge, billowing black smoke, and a brilliant, brilliant explosion of fire.”
The Boeing 757—American Airlines Flight 77—had just left Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia a few minutes before with a fuel tank full enough for a transcontinental flight. It crashed into the southwestern corner of the monolithic five-sided landmark at speeds estimated at 450mph, cutting a 100-foot-wide wedge through the five floors of the outermost E-Ring, and penetrating into the D and C rings as well. Destruction, death, mayhem on one end of the building; an earthquakelike jolt on the other.
One of the Pentagon’s two fire trucks was parked only 50 feet from the crash site, and it was “totally engulfed in flames,” Anderson says. Nearby, tanks full of propane and aviation fuel had begun igniting, and they soon began exploding, one by one. As Anderson ran closer, he saw the three firemen on duty at the Pentagon firehouse pull the second truck out of the garage. “Just three guys trying to put out this huge fire—but they very heroically pulled their truck closer to the fire than they probably should have.”
Military men were beginning to swarm on the other side of the blaze, “but there were just three, maybe four of us on our side.” They looked around and noticed two women lying on the ground. “We didn’t know if they had been blown out by the impact or jumped out to escape, but they were alive.” One was conscious, the other wasn’t. “We picked them up and dragged them 100 yards from the fire, turned them over to others and ran back to the building.
Another officer found a window that had been blown out, and “we put out the rest of the glass, boosted each other up and crawled through,” Anderson says. Inside, it was pitch black, dense smoke was everywhere, visibility was nil. “We got down on the floor and worked our way toward the fire,” he says. “We got to a door, but couldn’t get it open.” They felt around and found a body.” There was a pulse; it was a large woman who appeared to be in shock.” She couldn’t get up. Her body had apparently been slammed against a wall, and was now wedged into the building. Working together, the men worked to free her and drag her to an exit, to waiting helpers. Anderson later heard that she had lasted eight days and died on Sept. 19.
As the men turned back, “another woman just appeared, out of the middle of the smoke,” Anderson says. When she saw them, “she just fell to the ground, into our arms, and immediately fell apart. I think she went into shock. I was afraid she was going to slip into unconscienceness, so I took her outside, loosened her clothing, propped up her knees to help the blood flow—and then the paramedics grabbed her.”
Back in the building again, Anderson said he began “screaming and hollering for people as secondary and third-order explosions started going off. One of them was a fire department car exploding—I think my right eardrum exploded at the same time, and it unequivocally scared the heck out of me.” Knocked to the ground, Anderson was picking himself up, “when I noticed a brilliant flash of orange light shoot past me like a jet. I didn’t know if part of the roof was falling down or what. But whatever it was, it bounced up against the window in front of me like a rubber band. I suddenly realized it was someone on fire—a guy. The whole front of him was on fire, and I realized he was trying to find his way out of the building, and he must have thought that window was a door. The sergeant and I jumped on top of him, and smothered the flames, and grabbed him—his feet and hands, anything we could grab—and pulled him out of the building.
“One of the things that has stuck with me over the last nine days and nights is the fact that the entire time he was screaming, yelling at us, ‘There’s people behind me, there’s people behind me. Get the people out of the corridor behind me.’ When we got him outside, I realized it was a man in civilian clothes. The front part of his head to the bottom of his feet was burned away. He still had clothes on his back—but on the front, all his clothes and hair and eyebrows were just charred black. It’s weird the things you remember—like those sleeves on his arms, and the back of his shirt and how the back part of his shoes were there. It was very eerie. He was conscious and yelling the whole time, ‘Get those people out behind me, the people in the corridor,’ and then he slipped into unconsciousness, and someone came and picked him up.
“The sergeant and I went back into the building, but just as we got inside, firemen grabbed us and pulled us out of the building and wouldn’t allow us to go back in,” he said. “That’s been the hardest thing to live with. The fact is, there’s a code in the military that we live by—and the code states that if my brother, my comrade, is injured and is on the battlefield, you never leave him there. If I have to give my life, I will give my life, but I cannot leave my buddy behind. Never. Period. End of sentence. All professional soldiers understand this and live with it and know it. It’s part of our being. We all accept it. That’s why it’s not hard for a soldier to go into combat with his fellow soldiers, because we know that we are there for each other. Some of us are closer to our fellow soldiers than we are to our families.
|“That’s been the hardest thing to live with. The fact is, there’s a code in the military that we live by—and the code states that if my brother, my comrade, is injured and is on the battlefield, you never leave him there. ”|
— LT. COL. TED ANDERSON
“So here I am, in the middle of what appears to be an unseemly battlefield—there’s carnage, mayhem, fire, smoke, the smell of combat, everything but the gun fire—and I have a buddy back there, and I have to get to him. You know people say, ‘Why do you go back in there’—and if you talk to firemen or policemen, they think the same way. They don’t think about it. It’s automatic that you’re going back in there. But this time, the firemen and policemen restrained us—they physically restrained us. I realize they were only doing their jobs as they saw fit, but we were trying to do our jobs too.
“Anyway, we were screaming at the firemen, ‘there are people in that corridor, please let us go get them. They’re Army. We’re Army. There were generals there with us. We said we would take responsibility for our own welfare. But they couldn’t allow that to happen.... They held us back. There were hundreds of people standing around me, and it occurred to me later that we must have appeared like protestors, the way they were holding us back. We had guys standing there with back boards, guys who just wanted to assist, guys who just wanted in. Of course, the firefighters were saving our lives, by not allowing us in. If those firemen had not been there, we would have gone back into that building for those people. And that’s been the hardest thing to live with. One of the firemen told us later that they found those people, stacked up inside. They died as a group. When I sit and think about this at night by myself, the only thing that gives me some sort of comfort is the fact that they went very quickly. But I’m not sure I can live with the fact that they died 25 feet from an exit. All we had to do was go into that corridor and lead them out.”
By this time, there was “gazillions of people” there to help, Anderson said. He joined in, and two hours later, he found himself standing near the operations tent, near the on-site commander, when they got “a phone call from inside the building, from the NMCC—the National Military Command Center—the most secure part of the Pentagon.” Commonly known as “the tank,” the NMCC has been called “the primary nerve system” of the Pentagon, where commanders can monitor and communicate with American forces around the world. The NMCC caller said that “they were taking smoke,” Anderson said. Carbon dioxide levels were increasing. Temperatures inside the NMCC were also rising—a problem for the extensive computer network there. But because of its high-level security, the military personnel stationed there “had been ordered to stay and they couldn’t evacuate,” Anderson said. “They didn’t know where the fire was, but they thought if it got too close, they would be overcome by smoke.
“The fire chief split his crew in half and told two companies of firemen, led by their captain, to go in and surround the NMCC and stand and fight the fire. It sounded very similar to the way a rifle company commander talks to his troops about an impending battle they’re about to go into. The battalion chief briefed his firemen and told them to stand their ground and protect these guys who can’t come out. So they gathered their hoses and began checking their oxygen, and they were fully clothed and masked, when the chief firefighter told a general of the Army, who was the on-site commander at the time, that they didn’t know where they were going. The general turns to me and says, ‘Can you take them into the NMCC,’ and I said, ‘Yes, sir’.” I volunteered before I had a chance to think about it. And the next thing I know, the chief is putting an oxygen tank on my back and handing me a respirator and says we’re going in right now. I was standing there thinking, ‘What have I done? Anderson, you’re an idiot.’ But I thought I’d look like a coward if I ran—so I went with them.”
Anderson led them through the labyrinth that is the Pentagon, “and we worked our way to the NMCC.” At the same time, military personnel in the NMCC began reconfiguring the wiring of their ventilation system in order to get more cool air in and prevent more smoke from pouring in. By the time Anderson and the firefighters got there, they got some good news. “We found it was very secure—they were fine. We tested the air, and all appeared to be safe and secure, so we moved away from them, and started doing some investigative work inside, and made our way closer to the fire, to see what the fire looked like from the inside. At one point, it just got too dangerous to go any farther, so we went back out. I realized at that point what a stupid thing I’d done—I went in there without a fire hat, coat or gloves. If we had gotten in deep, I wouldn’t have had anything on me. That didn’t show a lot of common sense. But you just do whatever you need to do.”
Hoping that rescuers would be allowed back into the building once the fire was under control, Anderson found it hard to leave. “The whole time, I was waiting to go back in, to get people out of the building, but that time never came. It was frustrating, because everytime they seemed to be at a point where they were making headway, and it looked like the fire department was in a position to make entry, we’d be notified by someone that another airplane was inbound, there were other hijackers in the air, and they would evacuate us across the highway. The military hates to retreat, but we would have to put the hoses down and wait, sit there and wait, until they said it was all clear and we could get back in position. That happened three or four times—and it was absolutely frustrating.”
Three and a half hours later, the waiting finally became too much. “About 6:30 that evening, they told us they wouldn’t be bringing anyone else out that night, they’d wait until the fire was under control, and then they would pull out the remaining bodies,” Anderson said. “I was exhausted, and my buddy and I grabbed each other and walked to the nearest Metro [subway] station, over at Pentagon City,” a nearby mall. “When we got on the Metro, we looked like two vagrants off the streets. “I was scorched and raggedy and looking nasty, and we drew a lot of looks from the train riders. That was the quietest Metro ride of my life. There was not one person talking. It was total silence. I think most of the people were still in shock, and some were crying, deep within themselves.”
Now Anderson is back at work as the Pentagon prepares for war. Their long days start as early as three or four in the morning. Three times in the last week, the family of the man who was on fire has tried to contact him. “They want to get together, because they think I rescued their husband and father,” he said quietly, hesitantly. “I haven’t called them yet. I’ll probably meet with them, but I’m afraid to do it. I don’t know who this guy is, and I’m afraid if I find out, and then he dies, I’m going to feel even worse. I want to provide them with some comfort—but I have to figure out how to approach this.”
“It’s been helpful to me to be able to work 16 to 18 hours day, since the incident. That’s given me no time to reflect. I sleep a couple of hours, then I need to get back in.” He misses his family in North Carolina, but says “I’m so consumed with work and what we’re doing, even if they were here, I wouldn’t be able to see them. I think it’s a good thing they’re not here. We’re working seven days a week, in shifts, 24 hours a day, for who knows how long.”
Lt. Col. Marilyn Wills has staff meetings every other Tuesday morning. A deputy chief of staff in the Army’s personnel division, Wills, 40, had a particularly full agenda for the Sept. 11 meeting. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees were working on the 2002 budget, and her department was responsible for gathering facts and figures to pass on to congressional number crunchers. Knowing she needed some extra time to prepare for the meeting, Wills got daughters Portia, 13, and Percilla, 7, ready for school and left home at 6:30 a.m. to beat rush-hour traffic. She got to her desk in office 477 on the second floor of the Pentagon’s E-Ring at about 7:30 a.m., went through her voice-mail messages and e-mails, and spent an hour prepping for the meeting with a colleague. As Wills set off for the 9 o’clock meeting, she remembered that the second-floor conference room had a tendency to be chilly. She grabbed her black sweater from her cubicle, just in case. That sweater, she thinks, might have saved her life.
As meetings go, the biweekly session was pretty informal. Still this was the Army, and there was a certain lock-step order to the process. The personnel officers gathered around the conference table, about 12 in all, majors, lieutenant colonels, colonels and a few civilians. The colonel leading the meeting spoke first, then directed presentations one by one to his left. Wills was the sixth to speak. As she was nearing the end of her presentation about the budget bills and the upcoming Association of the U.S. Army Conference, the room shook, and there was a thunderous boom. A flame passed over her left shoulder and she was thrown to the other side of the room. “The fireball shot right through the room,” Wills recalls. “Then it just got jet black.” The flames turned immediately to smoke. Wills could hear people screaming but she couldn’t see a thing. She crawled to a door on the E-Ring hallway, but it would not open. There was another door, she knew. It was the one she had come in that morning. But it was on the other side of the room, and she had no idea how far away it was or what she had to go through to get there. She crawled toward what she hoped was the right side of the room, feeling for a small step that led to the door she was looking for. As she was crawling, someone grabbed onto her pants leg. “Who is it? Who’s there?” she screamed. It was another woman, a civilian staffer. She was terrified and couldn’t move. “Just hold onto my pants,” Wills called out. “Hold on and crawl behind me.” As they crawled Wills ran into the hip of another woman, and the three formed a chain. Wills says she has no idea how long they crawled around, but at some point she felt the small step and she knew they had found the door.
Out in the hallway one of the women, an officer, rolled over and started choking. The sprinklers had come on, and Wills realized she was soaked. She took off her black sweater, which was holding the water like a sponge. “Put the sweater over your mouth and suck the water out!” Wills ordered. The civilian on the back of the chain, too, had collapsed and called out that she couldn’t make it. Wills shoved the sweater into her face and said, “Suck the water from the sweater.” When she turned around the woman in front was gone. Wills started crawling again, and praying. “God, I can’t see. Help me.” Just then, she says, she saw a pin of light down the corridor and realized it was a window. As she crawled closer she glimpsed a soldier trying to break the window open with a fax machine. The soldier and a colonel started kicking the window, and it finally broke open. Wills, who somehow still had strength to stand, helped the colonel lower the civilian and another woman out the second-floor window to people waiting to catch them below. Once they had helped the two women out, Wills said she was going back for the other officer, the woman she had lost from the chain. The male officer started back into the smoke for her, but was soon pushed back by the billowing smoke. He looked at Wills and said simply: “No.” “That’s when I lost it,” says Wills. “I don’t know what happened next or who helped me, but suddenly I was out the window and on the ground. I guess I passed out.”
After that, things got hazy. Wills remembers being in a van or an SUV—more likely a medical vehicle of some sort. She remembers seeing the Pentagon and thinking, “Oh my gosh, it’s on fire!” “I just assumed the construction workers had done something. I had no idea a plane had hit us.” As she drifted in and out of consciousness, she remembered seeing an image of herself and her older sister walking to school, holding hands. They were little girls. Then she felt a forceful pounding on her back and someone yelling, “Breath! Breath!” It was a paramedic. There was an oxygen mask, a pump of air and then a realization: “I’m going to live.” She couldn’t speak, but she knew sign language. When they rolled her into Arlington Hospital she started signing: “Call my husband.” After that she doesn’t remember a thing.
|“I just assumed the construction workers had done something. I had no idea a plane had hit us.”|
— LT. COL. MARILYN WILLS
Wills’s family spent hours fearing the worst. The youngest daughter knew nothing until her father, a contractor with the Navy, came to get her from school. The teachers had decided not to tell the elementary students what had happened. But Portia, the oldest girl, had been in a technology class on Tuesday morning when one of her classmates called out: “Go to CNN.com. The World Trade Center was hit.” The students were called into an assembly, and when the administrators announced that there had been a crash at the Pentagon, Portia’s friends all turned and looked at her, terror-struck. “I’ve been there. The Pentagon is really big,” the 13-year-old reassured them. “It’s not where my mom is. My mom is safe.” When her father arrived to pick her up, he told her the truth: “We don’t know where Mommy is, but the Army will find her,” Kirk Wills told his two girls. The three sat at home waiting silently for some word. The hospital called around 1:30 to say that Wills was alive.
The Army personnel officer spent a week in the hospital, recovering from severe smoke inhalation and minor burns on her back and knees. Of the 12 people in the room with her that morning, two are among the missing. When people tell the 40-year-old mother how lucky she was to survive she corrects them: “No. I wasn’t lucky. I was blessed,” she says solemnly. “God has a purpose for me. For all of us who made it out. God has some purpose.”
‘THE GRASS IS ON FIRE’
Alan Wallace usually worked out of the Fort Myer fire station, but on Sept. 11 he was one of three firefighters assigned to the Pentagon’s heliport. Along with crew members Mark Skipper and Dennis Young, Wallace arrived around 7:30 in the morning. After a quick breakfast, the 55-year-old firefighter moved the station’s firetruck out of the firehouse. President Bush had used the heliport the day before: he’d motorcaded to the Pentagon, then flown to Andrews Air Force Base for a trip to Florida. Bush was scheduled to return to the Pentagon helipad later on Tuesday, Wallace says. So Wallace wanted the firetruck out of the station before Secret Service vehicles arrived and blocked its way. He parked it perpendicular to the west wall of the Pentagon. Wallace and Skipper were walking along the right side of the truck (Young was in the station) when the two looked up and saw an airplane. It was about 25 feet off the ground and just 200 yards away—the length of two football fields. They had heard about the WTC disaster and had little doubt what was coming next. “Let’s go,” Wallace yelled. Both men ran.
Wallace ran back toward the west side of the station, toward a nine-passenger Ford van. “My plans were to run until I caught on fire,” he says. He didn’t know how long he’d have or whether he could outrun the oncoming plane. Skipper ran north into an open field. Wallace hadn’t gotten far when the plane hit. “I hadn’t even reached the back of the van when I felt the fireball. I felt the blast,” he says. He hit the blacktop near the left rear tire of the van and quickly shimmied underneath. “I remember feeling pressure, a lot of heat,” he says. He crawled toward the front of the van, then emerged to see Skipper out in the field, still standing. “Everything is on fire. The grass is on fire. The building is on fire. The firehouse is on fire,” Wallace recalls. “There was fire everywhere. Areas of the blacktop were on fire.”
Wallace ran over to Skipper, who said he was OK, too. They compared injuries—burned arms, minor cuts, scraped skin. He ran back into the station to try to suit up. But he found debris everywhere. The ceiling had crumbled, there were broken
lights and drywall everywhere. His boots were on fire. His fire pants filled with debris. The fire alarm was blaring.
Then Wallace heard someone call from outside. “We need help over here,” someone yelled. He ran back outside over to the Pentagon building and helped lower people out of a first-floor window, still some six feet off the ground. He helped 10 to 15 people to safety. Most could walk, though he helped carry
one badly burned man. “He wasn’t too responsive,” Wallace recalls. He helped two other men drag him to the other side of the heliport then he turned around. “I’ve got to go back,” he said. Working with a civilian, Wallace headed back to the building. He could hear more cries for help from inside. There was trash and debris everywhere. The trees were on fire. Wallace headed into the building through an open door, but couldn’t find anyone else to save. “After a while I didn’t hear anybody calling anymore,” he says. “They probably found another way out.”
‘COME OUT, COME OUT’
A year’s work finally finished. Dan Fraunfelter counted himself lucky when he landed a job working on the first phase of the massive Pentagon renovation project. When the military complex was originally built, it was constructed in five, chevron-shaped wedges. Each chevron, more than 1 million square feet in size, accommodating roughly 5,000 workers, was designed as a stand-alone building with its own separate utility system. The unique design was meant to make the entire complex stronger (if one section of the building was suddenly disabled, the others could function regularly without disruption.) But it also lent itself particularly well to renovation. Even though the Pentagon is massive—larger than three Empire State Buildings, the face on each of the five sides slightly longer than three football fields— the wedge construction allowed engineers to remake the building one, easy-to-close-off section at a time. Contractors could simply move workers, seal off a wedge, and install new features like reinforced steel columns and two-inch-thick blast-resistant windows. Fraunfelter, a 24-year-old who studies architecture part time at Northern Virginia Community College, had long been fascinated by the Pentagon. When his firm, Amec Construction, won the general contract for Wedge 1, he plunged into the job eagerly, anxious to explore every square inch of the physical structure.
On Sept. 11, the contract officially complete, Fraunfelter was finishing up a few last punch-list items. He arrived on-site at 7 a.m. to prepare for an 8 a.m. tenant meeting. It was a routine job-completion task, a meeting where tenants handed over a list of final fix-it items: touch-up painting, leaking pipes, etc. After the meeting, just before 9:30 a.m., the young engineer grabbed a subcontractor to help him repair a damaged ceiling grid on the third floor of the Pentagon’s E-Ring. The two were in the middle of the job when a strange sound ripped through the room. It lasted just a split second, says Fraunfelter, “A strange sucking, whirring sound, like a loud vacuum cleaner.” Then the sound stopped, the building shook violently, and the lights went out. He ran into the corridor and saw smoke coming from about 100 feet away. The smoke was so thick he couldn’t see anything, but he could hear people screaming. He grabbed his flashlight and headed down the hall.
As Fraunfelter ran, he noticed a blown-out window. He ran to the window and looked down to see if he could see what happened. Below the window there was an old electric generator engulfed in smoke and flames. “The generator blew!” he said to the subcontractor. As he ran down the corridor, the smoke was getting thicker. He knew the section he had been working in was safe, so he started waving people in that direction with his flashlight. “Come toward the light. This way! Toward the light!” About 50 screaming people rushed past, but as Fraunfelter got closer in, the voices ceased.
|“Come toward the light. This way! Toward the light!”|
— DAN FRAUNFELTER
Afraid that some people may be trapped inside, he took off his shirt to cover his mouth, dropped to the searing hot floor and started to crawl. Somewhere inside the blackness he noticed the floor was deeply cracked. He knew all about this flooring—it was a strong epoxy with concrete underneath. As he felt around the floor, all the construction worker could think was, “This isn’t supposed to be cracked like this. What happened here?” Fraunfelter didn’t know that American Flight 77 was directly below him. He didn’t know that the cracked flooring that he was crawling on would give way some 30 minutes later and collapse into the wreckage.
Fraunfelter doesn’t know how long he crawled above ground zero, but he couldn’t find anyone in the blackness, and at a certain point he heard the subcontractor call out to him, “Come out. Come out!” Fraunfelter ran down to the second floor, went to his office and grabbed a heaving digging bar to bust open doors and windows. He teamed up with an EMT worker and two military officers and started directing people out of the building. As fire teams and search and rescue teams showed up throughout the day the contractor stayed on offering his help, “I’m extremely familiar with the building,” he called out to any uniformed rescue worker he saw. “Just tell me what you need, where you need to go. I know every inch of the place.”
At about 6 p.m. a paramedic finally pulled the young construction worker aside. Fraunfelter still had soot running from his nose, and big black rings around his eyes. As he sat down to get checked out he finally got a good look at the building. He stared into the still burning wreckage, looked at the collapsed structure, and started doing calculations in his head. He could see the section of the building where he was working on the damaged ceiling grid that morning. The corridor he had run into and crawled out of now led to a huge, smoking, gapping hole. He found a phone and called his girlfriend and family to tell them he was OK.
‘IT WAS A WAR ZONE’
Carlton Burkhammer was at work at Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Station 14 when he heard about the World Trade Center crashes. Part of Fairfax County’s elite urban search and rescue team, Burkhammer prepared to suit up and head to New York City. One of the nation’s most experienced rescue teams, the squad had been deployed in disasters all over the world: Oklahoma City, embassy bombings, the Turkey earthquake. Team members always stow a packed bag in their cars. Within hours, all 72 members can be at an airport ready to embark on a rescue mission. They specialize in building collapse, gently probing through piles of rubble and reinforced concrete looking for survivors. With flight time added in, the team usually doesn’t arrive on the scene until a day or so after a disaster, making it tough to carry out their mission of finding live victims. “We’ve always said if we’d gotten there four hours sooner or eight hours sooner ...,” Burkhammer says. But on Sept. 11, the team didn’t have any travel time. The Pentagon was practically in their backyard.
The team called off plans to head to New York and tried to page its members to gather at Station 18. But the paging system wasn’t working well, and it took time for the men to meet. Finally, they piled into two buses and were raced to the Pentagon with a police escort. “We didn’t know what we were going to,” recalls Burkhammer. On TV, all he could see was a lot of dark smoke. On the short bus ride, radio calls told the team to hurry. “It got you pumped,” says Burkhammer. For once, he thought, the team could find lots of live victims. “We’re getting to a collapsed building within minutes. We’re going to make numerous live finds,” he thought.
|“We didn’t know what we were going to.”|
— CARLTON BURKHAMMER
As the team pulled up around 1 p.m., the scene didn’t look that bad, Burkhammer thought. Sure, the building had collapsed in part, but it looked like a textbook case—exactly the kind of the thing the search and rescue team was expert at. But on the inside, things were much worse. “The building was so unstable,” says Burkhammer. Television only showed a fraction of the damage. The team sent in two reconnaissance teams, who rushed through ground floor doors. Their job was to search wherever they could and radio out to let rescue squads know where to find victims they could save. One team headed to the right of the collapse. The other went to the left. The Pentagon was still burning. The area was engulfed with smoke and heat. Burkhammer and his colleagues were suited up in full “flash gear” to handle the fire, complete with breathing equipment and search tools. They peered out from behind steamy plastic face shields and used helmet lights to see.
The Pentagon’s thick walls rendered the firefighters’ radios useless. But it turned out not to matter: Burkhammer and the other recon men didn’t find any survivors to radio about. “You’d see bodies. You’d roll ‘em over and they’d be dead,” Burkhammer says. He spotted people entangled in the wreckage, but they had all succumbed to the initial blast or the ensuing fire. The air was hot and smoky. Sprinklers poured water down onto the floor. The halls were dark and the men searched with flashlights. “It was a war zone,” Burkhammer says. “Some parts of the building, there was nothing left intact.” Ceilings had fallen and ventilation systems dangled down. The left side of the building was more unstable than the right, where they could access all five floors. Burkhammer spotted lime-green pieces from the interior of the plane. “You could tell where the plane had gone because of the destruction of the steel and concrete beams,” he says. He could see evidence of the Pentagon’s renovations: exposed I-beams read MAY 2000. After a frustrating hour, the recon teams stumbled back out of the building. Lugging the heavy gear through the heat and smoke had taken a toll. One man was sent to the hospital for dehydration. “We were spent,” says Burkhammer. And they were dejected. “We did not find any live people,” he says. Even the search dogs seemed to feel the loss. “You can see it on the dog’s face. The dogs are almost as depressed as the guys are,” Burkhammer says.
Still, the rescue teams wanted to go back into the building, hoping that somehow someone might have survived in a void. But they had to wait for the fire to cool before they could head back in. Shoring up the unstable building became the next task. The team built “box cribs”—replacement columns for those damaged by the crash—out of pieces of 6-by-6 lumber. Eventually, they put more than 42 in place. Conditions were tough. Though the fire was controlled, there was water everywhere from the fire streams and the sprinklers. “Your feet were soaked,” says Burkhammer. Everyone got blisters. The men worked 12-hour shifts, handling the night shift with a team from Virginia Beach, Va. During the day, teams from Tennessee and Montgomery County, Md., took over. In between, Burkhammer’s crew was shuttled to a military barracks in Anacostia, where they slept on cots.
Burkhammer, a trained paramedic, never found anyone to treat. Instead, he helped carry out debris and assisted the mortuary teams. “I’m there to recover live people, and if I can’t do that I want to recover the deceased just so there’s closure for the family,” he said. One night, when he got off the bus from the barracks, Burkhammer was approached by a woman who held up a photo of her husband and asked if he could help find him. “Those things broke my heart,” he says. “What do you say to that?” Still, Burkhammer did not want to give up. “They have hope till we leave,” he says. He knew that even if they found someone who’d been in a void in the collapsed building, the person would have probably succumbed to the toxic smoke or flames. Still, he says, “Everytime we lifted up a slab of concrete, we were looking for that find. But it didn’t happen.” Everything was black and soot-covered. The first and second floors suffered major structural damage as well as fire damage. In some places, Burkhammer found office furniture that had been moved across the room by the force of the crash. There were metal file cabinets wrapped into “U” shapes around the building’s support columns.
On Wednesday afternoon, President Bush planned to tour the site. Rescue workers had planted a small American flag atop the building Tuesday night. But Wednesday they unfurled a giant one that hung two thirds of the way down the walls near the damaged area. It was a little sign that inspired workers like Burkhammer. “When they dropped that flag, I thought ‘everything is going to be all right’.”
Early Friday morning, shortly before 4 a.m., Burkhammer and another firefighter, Brian Moravitz, were combing through debris near the impact site. Peering at the wreckage with their helmet lights, the two spotted an intact seat from the plane’s cockpit with a chunk of the floor still attached. Then they saw two odd-shaped dark boxes, about 1.5 by 2 feet long. They’d been told the plane’s “black boxes” would in fact be bright orange, but these were charred black. The boxes had handles on one end and one was torn open. They cordoned off the area and called for an FBI agent, who in turn called for someone from the National Transportation Safety Board who confirmed the find: the black boxes from American Airlines Flight 77. “We wanted to find live victims,” says Burkhammer. But this was a consolation prize. “Finding the black box gave us a little boost,” he says.
‘WE DO WHAT WE DO BECAUSE THAT’S OUR JOB’
Don Fortunato, a plainclothes detective with the Arlington (Va.) Police Department, was walking into his office, when he heard a muffled explosion—construction, he thought. Then his radio started squawking news of a plane crash at the Pentagon. “I grabbed my radio, ran to my car and pulled on my bulletproof vest and headed toward the thick, black smoke billowing out of the sky,” he said. “Traffic was at a standstill, so I parked on the shoulder, not far from the scene and ran to the site. Next to me was a cab from D.C., its windshield smashed out by pieces of lampposts. There were pieces of the plane all over the highway, pieces of wing, I think.”
Firetrucks were already shooting streams of water on the fire, and rescue workers were struggling to spread out huge tarps on the ground to establish a triage area. “Victims were just running toward you,” he said. “I ran up to a EMS captain and asked for rubber gloves and started helping the victims to triage.” For some, he had to run close up to the building to get; others straggled toward him, winding their way past the emergency vehicles that were filling the south parking lot. “There were a lot of people with severe burns, severe contusions, severe lacerations, in shock and emotional distress,” he said. “I was carrying stretchers, holding IV bags, putting pressure on wounds, handing out bandages, if they could hold them themselves, anything they needed.” He had gotten emergency medical training from the police department. This day, he needed it all.
The burn victims were the toughest cases. “All you could really do it get them to a point of safety, have them lie down and tell them not to move until you could flag down a doctor or nurse,” he said. “Then things got really complicated, because we got confirmed reports of a second incoming plane. People started yelling, ‘There’s a second incoming, 20 miles out, inbound to us. So people started packing up what they could, and we ran.” Other police officials were told there were two to four unaccounted-for planes in the skies—so the decision was made to move the triage area back, off the grounds of the Pentagon, where some cover could be found. They settled on three lanes of road, under a concrete overpass, that had been shut to traffic.
“It was extremely difficult to move all those medical supplies and people. Supplies were just arriving when we got the warning,” he said. “And for a lot of the people in the original triage area, the realization of what was happening was sinking in, and they were scared. Some of them couldn’t move on their own, they had to be moved on stretchers.” About two minutes later, he said, “we heard two F-16s screaming over the Pentagon and circling,” Fortunato said. “We knew they were our fighter planes, and everybody breathed a sigh of relief. We felt safe. But it was an eerie sensation knowing that American war planes were in the air because we were under attack.”
Since the morning of the attack Fortunato has been back on site numerous times—usually as a evidence technician shifting through the tons of debris. Under the watchful eye of structural engineers, hundreds of police, fire, military and other rescue workers continue, in 12-hour shifts, to collect what they can from the blackened cavern. With body bags in tow, the workers search through the rubble by hand. “You’re looking for body parts, clothing, teeth,” Fortunato said. ” There’s so much debris, twisted metal, everything’s charred and pitch black. You have to go on foot with a flashlight, and you scan what you can scan. There’s lots of areas we can’t go into because they’re unstable. There are piles of concrete, desks, filing cabinets, duct work and ventilation pipes, all the things that can’t be incinerated.
“If you find some victim remains, you get down on your hands and knees and comb the earth, and place whatever you find in the body bag, including personal belongings and clothing,” he said. “If you see something else a little farther away, you assume it’s another victim, and you put it in a new body bag.” It’s not always easy to tell where one body begins and another ends, he concedes, or what’s human and what’s not. It’s a very painstaking process. You just look for whatever evidence you can, human or forensic evidence.”
A few bodies were found intact—”caught in an instant,” as one rescue worker put it. One woman was found at her desk, arms up protecting her face, charred to her chair, eerily reminiscent of the aftermath of Pompey. Two men were found in similar shape. But most victims were in pieces.
Fortunato says some rescue workers welcome breaks from this kind of work. Others volunteer to stay on the rotation. “People want to help,” he said. ” We had hoped to bring people out.” Since that’s not going to happen, he said. “We do what we do because that’s our jobs,” he said.
‘THEY CAN’T KILL OUR SPIRIT’
Dr. Thom Mayer had cleared his emergency room early Tuesday morning, in expectation that Pentagon victims would be streaming into nearby Inova Fairfax hospital where he heads the ER staff. He had eight trauma teams waiting. But they got only a trickle of walking wounded and smoke inhalation victims. Within a few hours of the crash, it began to dawn on the staff that there would be no rush. “There weren’t going to be many victims from the scene,” he said. “We could have taken care of several hundred trauma victims at our hospital alone,” said Mayer. “We had 35 doctors in our ER—most came in on their own. But there was no one to take care of. ” By evening, he was out at the triage site at the Pentagon, wearing one of his other hats, as medical director of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue team. He stayed there all night and into the next day—hoping against hope that the search and rescue teams would give him something to do. He got a few rescue workers who were exhausted or suffering from smoke inhalation. . But no victims of the disaster. The four MASH units from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, ready to do on-site surgery, got no business at all.
At one point, he went into the charred opening, to check on the safety of workers there “There was jet fuel all over the place. It was very smoky, and it was difficult to breathe, even with a respirator,” he said. ” I saw horrifying things. It looked like the inner circle of Dante.... I stood there wondering, how did Dante know what this would look like.”
As the fire blazed on, and fireman worked through the night, Mayer noticed a couple of Marines struggling to put an American flag on top of the burned out firetruck in front of the crash site at 2:30 in the morning. “It was so evocative of Iwo Jima,” he said. “I called over a Marine and told him he should put up the biggest flag he could get, up on the wall next to the area of impact, as a sign of American spirit, so everyone would see it at first light. But when the dawn came up, Mayer didn’t see a flag. But later that same day, President Bush came to the crash site, talked to rescue workers and “stayed for a long time,” Mayer said. “He shook every person’s hand that was there. Every hand. As I was shaking his hand, they dropped this huge flag. He was moved, and so was I.” As it unfurled, soldiers standing atop the Pentagon, to the right of the blackened ruins, saluted. The crowd, mostly exhausted rescue workers and military personnel, cheered. Some sang “God Bless America.” It was a moment that those who were there will never forget. ” In the end, that was my biggest contribution—a contribution to the spirit,” Mayer said. “They may have destroyed part of a building, and they may have killed people, but they can’t kill the our spirit.”
© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.
© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.