pilot online logo
Go to HamptonRoads.com
 Apartments -
 AutoPilot -
 CareerConnection -
 Classifieds -
 Real Estate -
 Shopping -
 Yellow Pages
  Pilot subscriptions
  Contact us
  U.S./World News
  Recent articles
  N. Carolina
  Va. Beach
  Census / Numbers
 Community Groups
 Fun & Entertainment
 Health & Fitness
 Home & Garden
 Local Events
 Real Estate
 School Zone
 Shopping & Coupons
 Sports & Rec
 Travel & Tourism
 Ask an Expert
 Best of HR
 City Guides
 Dining Guide
 Festivals Guide
 Movie Guide
 Newcomers Guide
 Places to Go
 Visitor's Guide
 Web Guide
 Zoo Guide
 Site Map

> Email this Page
> Newsletter
Military > Sept. 11
email Email This Page subscribe Newsletter Sign-Up

Inside the Pentagon on 9/11: The Call of Duty

Photo by Mark Faram / Associated Press.

By EARL SWIFT, The Virginian-Pilot
© 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.

Lt. Kevin Shaeffer
In the first-floor Navy Command Center, Lt. Kevin Shaeffer bellied under a drapery of hanging wires, their popping and hissing loud in his ears. He was so confident he would be electrocuted that he was baffled when he realized he was past them. He lurched down a pile of wreckage and saw that the smoke before him seemed backlit, and that it brightened further as he passed through a hole in the Command Center's back wall, into a room he'd never seen before, filled with overturned desks and smashed computers. He climbed over the desks and through another hole, and into the golden sunshine of a clear September morning.

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.

Betty Maxfield
On the second floor, a half-dozen men and women crawled in a ragged chain through the jumbled remains of the Army's personnel offices, choked and blinded by a corrosive smoke, oily and black, that filled the room. Betty Maxfield, clutching the ankle of the man in front of her, her own leg held by someone behind, had dropped to her stomach, and still she couldn't get below the smoke, couldn't breathe.

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.

Col. Phil McNair
A rectangle of light appeared in the smoke, dim and indistinct. From ahead of Maxfield in the line, Army Col. Phil McNair could see the silhouette of a man sitting on the sill; from behind, Lt. Col. Marilyn Wills could make out the shadowy form of Spec. Michael W. Petrovich kicking at the rectangle's edges.

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.

Lt. Col. Marilyn Wills
We're not going to get out, Wills thought. We're going to die here. We've crawled clear across the room, through hell, and we're going to die anyway. She was a woman of strong Christian faith, but now felt anger well up, anger at God. You can't do this, she thought. No way. Come on.

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.

John Yates
John Yates had been part of the team planning the Pentagon's renovation for eight years. At times, the project had become all-consuming; he even dreamed about it once while vacationing in Aruba. He knew the floor plan of the made-over ``new'' wedge, and the personnel space in particular, better than he knew his own house.

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.

Sgt. Major Tony Rose
Nearer the E Ring, Sgt. Maj. Tony Rose crawled past a closing fire door with so little time to spare that the metal barrier snagged his foot. He jerked it out of the way and crawled on to a second fire door, squeezing past just before it, too, locked shut.

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.

>> Story continued ...

email Email This Page subscribe Newsletter Sign-Up

upTop of Page / Give us feedback / Sponsor this channel

About Us | Join Our Team | Place an Ad | Advertising Info | Feedback
Copyright 1993-2002, HamptonRoads.com / PilotOnline.com  |  Privacy Policy
Add an Event | Submit a Local Website | Edit Your Profile