© September 9, 2002
Special report: Part 3 of 4 / Part 2 / Part 1
Ten minutes after a hijacked American Airlines jet ripped into the Pentagon last Sept. 11, a large section of the vast office building was in shreds. Fires raged along the path the airliner had cored through the first floor. Dozens of concrete columns had been vaporized, leaving the four floors above without support and doomed to collapse. The wreckage was strewn with the dead and dying.
Shaeffer stood on a service road that circled the Pentagon between the B and C rings. A chunk of the 757's nose cone and front landing gear lay on the pavement a few feet away, resting against the B Ring wall. For a second it seemed he had left his body and was watching the scene from above: He saw himself stagger from the smoke and over the broken rock piled outside the opening, arms outstretched, eyes shut and mouth agape in pain and shock and horror. Just like that little girl in Vietnam, after the napalm attack, he thought. I look just like her.
A pair of Navy men were the first to reach him. Yeoman Cean Whitmarsh was stunned that the lieutenant was still on his feet. His hair had been burned off. His polyester khakis were melted onto his skin. His flesh was charred black and bleeding and melted. And he was on fire: Flames licked up his left side.
``I need help,'' Shaeffer cried. ``Please help me. I'm hurt.''
Whitmarsh tore off his own shirt and used it to smother the fire, and noticed something else: A two-foot piece of metal ceiling frame was wrapped around the lieutenant. One jagged end had been driven against his lower back; the rest of the rod curled across his back and over his right shoulder. It was too hot to touch.
He and an officer tried pulling it off, without success, then held Shaeffer down and pried it away with a penknife while Shaeffer cursed and struggled. His skin sloughed off in pieces bigger than playing cards.
Over the crashes of falling ductwork and ceiling tile, the crackle of fire, the whoop-whoop-whoop of the fire alarm, Maxfield heard a voice say, ``We've got to try to get to the windows,'' and the caravan turned to the room's rear. A row of windows there overlooked the service road.
Petrovich had found a window torn from its moorings, and was trying to widen the gap between the frame and the building. Luckless, he jumped to the floor, grabbed a heavy computer printer, and tossed it at the glass. It bounced off, landing in Wills' lap. He retrieved it and threw it a second time. Again, it bounced.
McNair got to his feet and joined Petrovich on the sill, and together they kicked at the frame. Wills joined in, pushing. A gap of little more than a foot opened. Wills tapped Lois Stevens, who'd crossed the room holding onto her belt. You're first, she said.
``Stand up,'' Petrovich hollered. ``Sit on the ledge. Do it quickly.''
Stevens clambered onto the windowsill and dangled her legs outside. McNair and Petrovich held her hands as she slipped over the edge and through the opening. When she'd cleared the window frame, they let go. ``Next!'' Petrovich yelled.
Betty Maxfield stepped onto a chair that had been shoved under the window, swung onto the sill, and squeezed outside. Smoke swirled around her. Through it, she could see that she was 20 feet off the road below, which was littered with broken concrete and other debris. It did not scare her in the least; she felt nothing but relief to have escaped the smoke. She let go, and was half-caught by soldiers and sailors on the ground. She was still wearing one-inch heels as she retreated to the B Ring. She still clutched her checkbook.
Up at the window, Petrovich yelled to McNair that he couldn't breathe. ``OK, you go,'' the colonel told him, and with Wills' help, lowered the soldier over the side. Wills jumped onto the sill to take Petrovich's place, and helped a couple of others escape. Peering through the smoke for the next in line, she was surprised to find no one there. Maj. Regina Grant, a link in the daisy chain for part of its crawl across the room, had broken away and found rescue in the Fourth Corridor, but Wills didn't know that.
``OK, Marilyn,'' McNair hollered, ``you can go.''
``Sir,'' Wills yelled back, ``Regina was with us, and now I can't find her.''
``What?'' McNair said. They could barely see each other in the smoke. The alarms continued to whoop, the recorded message to intone: ``There is an emergency in the building. Please evacuate immediately.''
``Regina,'' Wills shouted. ``She was here, and now she's gone.'' I'll have to tell Grant's husband, she thought. How can I do that? How do I do that?
She was pondering this when McNair wordlessly turned back into the smoke. ``Colonel McNair!'' Wills screamed. ``Don't go!'' Too late. He'd vanished. Long seconds passed, and Wills, shouting his name between coughs, wondered whether she'd lost him, too. Suddenly, he was back beside her. The smoke had dropped all the way to the floor. It was impenetrable. ``Marilyn, it's no good,'' he said. ``We have to get out of here.''
``What about Marian?'' she screamed. Marian Serva, her partner, the office's other congressional liaison.
McNair could see that she was crying. ``There's nothing we can do,'' he shouted.
``Let's try yelling together,'' she suggested, and they screamed a few times into the smoke. They got no response. No more yells drifted from the room's hot, dark center. No cries for help. ``Now,'' the colonel told her. ``It's time for you to go.''
When she jumped, Navy Cmdr. Craig Powell, a SEAL commando who'd just reported to the Pentagon the day before, was waiting. He caught her clean. Wills never even touched the ground.
Now he crawled headfirst into a wall and knew that he had reached the hallway linking the big room to the Fourth Corridor. As he moved away from the cubicle farm he felt the cool water of sprinklers on his back, and could make out dim shapes in the lightening smoke. The door to the corridor had been blown off its hinges. He turned into the thoroughfare, collapsed, lay on the floor for what might have been 10 seconds, might have been several minutes. Then he stood up and walked down the corridor toward the building's middle.
Lt. Col. Victor Correa appeared in the smoke. Are you all right? he asked. Yates replied that no, he wasn't. His body was smoking, and he radiated heat: Correa could feel it from three feet away.
An enclosed bridge carried the Fourth Corridor over the roadway between the B and C rings. Rose paused to look down on soldiers and sailors gathered around a pair of large holes in the C Ring wall. He saw his colleagues from the big room jumping from the window.
He ran downstairs and joined McNair, who'd just escaped, outside one of the holes. Smoke billowed from the darkness, and from within it they heard pleas for help.
Rose started in, found his path blocked by debris, grabbed chunks of concrete and broken furniture and passed it to a man behind him, who passed it down a quickly forming line. A pile grew in the road. Some of the pieces were so hot that Rose needed to douse them with a fire extinguisher before he could touch them.
After a minute he saw a hand jutting from the wreckage, fingers splayed. He grabbed it, and the fingers closed tight around his. He dug out a sailor, the first of seven he and McNair and their compatriots rescued.
The fire in the Navy Command Center raced toward them. It got so hot in the hole that the man at the head of the line couldn't last more than a minute, would have to retreat to the roadway and roll around in puddles to cool his skin. The second in line would step forward, claw at the wreckage for a minute, retreat. The ceiling sagged at one point, and seemed sure to fall; Craig Powell, the big Navy SEAL who'd caught Marilyn Wills, held it up while the others crawled between his legs.