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Aircraft Crashes Into Pentagon, Triggering Chaos
September 11, 2001 3:57 pm EST
By Charles Aldinger
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A hijacked passenger plane smashed into the Pentagon on Tuesday, setting off a huge explosion and fire and causing untold casualties in a devastating blow to the headquarters of the U.S. military.
The attack, coinciding with similar incidents at the World Trade Center in New York, set off an immediate security alert in the American capital, with all federal buildings evacuated and F-16 fighter jets scrambled over the city.
The plane carrying 64 people, apparently on a scheduled flight that was diverted deliberately, sliced into the building during morning working hours at about 9:30 a.m., when the offices and corridors are normally bustling with people.
Pentagon spokesman Adm. Craig Quigley said he had no firm figure on casualties five hours after the crash, as fire fighters struggled to contain the blaze set off by the explosion that had rocked the huge building.
"I do not have any sense of scale at all. We know there are casualties. I can't get give you a good number," he told reporters.
Hospitals in the Washington area were put on a state of emergency and 40 people, mostly suffering from burns and smoke inhalation, were initially brought in for treatment.
Rescue workers, driven back by the fire and smoke, were unable to get to the heart of the impact for several hours and there were fears of many deaths, including among the passengers and crew of the plane.
An FBI official at the scene said he believed the plane was an American Airlines aircraft that had been bound from Washington Dulles Airport for Los Angeles.
The airline said it was unable to account for a Boeing 757 with 58 passengers, four flight attendants and two pilots that had been flying that route.
PART OF PENTAGON COLLAPSES
A section of the five-story, five-sided complex, the world's biggest office building that had never been attacked during the decades of the Cold War, collapsed and burned, sending gray smoke billowing over Washington.
U.S. officials said the attacks in New York and Washington, which prompted evacuation of all other federal buildings in the capital, appeared coordinated and mounted by terrorists.
Quigley said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, 69, was in his office on the north side of the complex when the plane hit the opposite side and he went over to help the injured.
"He went outside the building and was helpful in getting several people that were injured onto stretchers. He was out there 15 minutes or so helping the injured," he said.
Rumsfeld then went to the National Command Center, a secure section below his own office that serves as the nerve center of the Defense Department.
Rescue teams assembled on the lawns, highways and parking lots around the building.
At one point one of the firemen planted an American flag on a tall pole in the blackened debris just outside the smoking building, prompting an emotional cheer from the military and rescue officers outside the building.
Red, yellow and green sectors were established on a nearby road, prepared to handle the different degrees of casualties once victims were brought out, and dozens of stretchers were arranged to do that.
The regular Pentagon helicopter pad was not usable, scattered with debris from the plane and the explosion on the building. But helicopters were landing and taking off from a cordoned-off area nearby.
Ambulances and a busload of trauma experts arrived from the Army's Walter Reed Hospital in Washington.
FIGHTER JETS FLY OVER WASHINGTON
Immediately after the thunderous crash blue-and-white strobe alarm lights and wailing sirens drove the more than 20,000 civilians and military men and women who work in the building into the surrounding parking lots.
The Navy spokesman, Rear Admiral Steve Pietropaoli, was in his office close to the impact and told reporters many casualties may have been averted because the section had recently been renovated and fitted with blast resistant windows.
Shortly after the evacuation, warnings were broadcast of a reported second plane approaching the building, prompting people to flee to nearby highways, but no second aircraft came.
F-16 fighter jets swooped low over the burning building but it was not immediately clear whether it was part of a concerted military patrol over the capital.
Arlington County, Virginia, firefighter Derek Spector, head of the first unit that arrived on the scene, stumbled out of the building two hours after the incident, exhausted and blackened by smoke, as the fire still blazed.
"We got there, and the whole side of the building was in flames. It's terrible in there. But we didn't come across any casualties," Spector told Reuters.
The Pentagon, a major symbol of U.S. military power, is across the Potomac River from Washington.
Pentagon security officer George Clodfelter, whose uniform was stained with blood, said he pulled a woman and her infant out of a window close to the impact site and they were shaken but unhurt.
Lisa Burgess, a reporter for the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes, said she was walking in a corridor and was thrown to the ground by the force of the blast.
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