Skip to content
Published September 10, 2021

The Pentagon is the world’s largest office building, and an enduring symbol of the American military.

So, on the morning of September the 11th, 2001 – even after seeing the terrible images coming out of New York – it was a shock for the American public to see it burning.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

While memories of 9/11 are often dominated by the tragedy of the World Trade Center attacks, in some ways the attack on the Pentagon may have dealt a deeper blow to the American government. It was the worst attack on governmental facilities in Washington DC since the city was burned in 1812; and it began that morning at Washington Dulles Airport.

American Airlines Flight 77 was a scheduled flight from Washington to Los Angeles. The Boeing 757 had a capacity of 188, but that Tuesday morning carried only 58 passengers. The captain was Charles Burlingame, with First Officer David Charlesbois, purser Renee May and three flight attendants making up the rest of the crew.

Amongst the passengers were Hani Hanjour and brothers Salem and Nawaf al-Hazmi, seated in first class, and Majed Moqed and Khalid al-Mihdhar, in economy. The al-Hazmi brothers had nearly been late for the flight; ticket agent Vaughn Allex would later recall, “These two guys come running in the front door looking around and didn’t know which way to go.”

The flight started normally, leaving the gate on time and taking off at 8:20, but the last routine communication would be at 8:50.

At some point in the following few minutes, the plane was taken over. Based on what we know of the attacks in general, and where the attackers were seated, it’s most likely that the al-Hazmi brothers attacked the cockpit, while Moqed and al-Mihdhar took control of the passengers, moving them to the back of the plane. Then, Hani Hanjour took over the controls. By 8:54, the plane had turned, beginning to make its way back towards Washington.

Unlike the other flights, there were no reports of anyone actually being stabbed at this point, and it seems that the pilots may have been moved to the back with the passengers rather than being killed. However, information is limited, as only two people from this flight were able to make contact with the ground.

At 9:12, purser Renee May made a call to her mother, Nancy, in Las Vegas. She said that their plane had been hijacked by six individuals – it’s presumed that she miscounted in the chaos of the moment – and they had all been moved to the back of the plane. She asked her mother to alert American Airlines, giving her three numbers to call, before the call was cut off. May’s parents alerted the airline as she had requested.

The second caller was passenger Barbara Olson, whose husband Ted happened to be the solicitor general of the United States. He would later recall:

“One of the secretaries rushed in and said, “Barbara’s on the phone.” I jumped for the phone, so glad to hear Barbara’s voice. Then she told me, “Our plane has been hijacked.”

I had two conversations – my memory tends to mix the two of them up because of the emotion of the events. We spoke for a minute or two, then the phone was cut off. Then she got through again, and we spoke for another two or three or four minutes. She told me that she had been herded to the back of the plane. She mentioned that they had used knives and box cutters to hijack the plane. We then both reassured one another – this plane was still up in the air, this plane was still flying. This was going to come out OK. She said, “I love you.” She sounded very, very calm.”

At one point she asked, “What do I tell the pilot to do?” It’s thought this might mean that the pilots were at the back with the passengers, but there’s no way to know for sure.

By this time, both American 11 and United 175 had already crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York. It was clear that the situation on board American 77 was equally serious. Between the first call and the second, Olson informed the command center at the Department of Justice of the situation.

“I was in shock and horrified. I reassured her that I thought everything was going to be OK. I was pretty sure everything was not going to be OK… I wanted to find out where the plane was. She reported to me that she could see houses. We segued back and forth between expressions of feeling for one another and this effort to exchange information. Then the line went dead.”

On the ground, air traffic controllers were searching for American 77, which had disappeared from their radars when the transponder was turned off. However, they didn’t realise that it had turned back on itself, so they were looking in the wrong place. 

It was 9:32 when Danielle O’Brien, an air traffic controller at Washington Dulles Airport, spotted a primary radar return.

“It was an unidentified plane to the southwest of Dulles, moving at a very high rate of speed. The speed, the maneuverability, the way that he turned, we all thought in the radar room – all of us experienced air traffic controllers – that it was a military plane. You don’t fly a 757 in that manner. It’s unsafe.”

Hanjour, of course, was not concerned with safety.

Dan Creedon, departure controller at Reagan National Airport, noticed another airplane in the vicinity; a military transport plane, piloted by Lt. Col Steven O’Brien. He was immediately contacted by controllers to warn him, and to ask him what he saw – with the transponder off, their radar showed no information on the plane except its location.

“The pilot came right back and said, “Yes sir, an American seven-five-seven turning southeast bound.” I’ll never forget- I was like, “What?” Maybe I was the slowest guy on the planet that day, but I really didn’t understand that was a hijacked aircraft until it hit the Pentagon.”

O’Brien recalled:

“They requested that we follow this airplane. I don’t think they said “chase” but “do you think you could turn and follow this airplane?” That was strange. I had never had a request like that in all my entire career of flying. It was very, very strange, but I still matter-of-factly said, “Sure, we can follow that airplane.” It became a losing proposition because this airplane was going faster. We could still see the glint off the wingtips.”

Robert Hunor was a contractor working at the Pentagon that day.

“National Airport is right next to the Pentagon, so there’s a huge amount of aircraft traffic going overhead. I remember when we walked outside it was dead silent. We were talking, and I was like, “They must have shut down the airport.” All of a sudden, I heard a faint sound- like an engine spooling up. You could hear the plane flooring its throttles. I had begun to say, “I thought that they shut the airport,” and then the plane hit.”

He was far from the only witness. There were many people in and around the Pentagon, or on the highways passing by.

Mike Walter, senior correspondent for USA Today Live, happened to be in traffic nearby. 

“I rolled down the window. That’s when I heard the jet. I looked up and saw its underbelly, then it banked, and it began to dive. It was unbelievable.”

Omar Campo  was cutting the grass on the other side of the road.

“… It came in screaming over my head. I felt the impact. The whole ground shook and the whole area was full of fire. I could never imagine I would see anything like that here.”

Dennis Smith was a maintenance inspector at the Pentagon Building Manager’s office.

“There was a big, giant ball of fire, red and black. The heat hit us like from a barn fire. Then parts started flying out of the sky.”

Deb Anlauf was in a nearby hotel, watching the news of the World Trade Center attacks when she heard a loud roar outside.

“Suddenly I saw this plane right outside my window. You felt like you could touch it; it was that close. It was just incredible. Then it shot straight across from where we are and flew right into the Pentagon. It was just this huge fireball that crashed into the wall. When it hit, the whole hotel shook…

Absolutely, even before the plane hit I knew that this wasn’t an accident. That plane had to purposefully swoop around our hotel to hit.”

From the air, O’Brien saw the final moments of American 77.

“We saw this huge fireball. I reported to air traffic control – I said something to the effect, “That airplane’s down. It’s crashed.”… We proceeded on a little bit farther- that’s when the silhouette of the Pentagon became apparent. Then I realised that it had crashed into the Pentagon.”

The Pentagon, built in the early 1940s, consists of five wedge-shaped sections, which form the pentagonal shape. Each section in turn has five concentric rings, with A ring being the innermost, and E ring the outermost. Because the E ring is the only one with exterior windows, many of the offices there are reserved for higher ranking officials.

The plane came in low enough to knock down five streetlights; part of one sheared off, and fell through the windshield of a passing taxi cab, landing next to the driver’s leg. 

Coming in almost level, just a few feet above the ground in the last few hundred feet, the right wing struck a piece of construction equipment, tilting the plane slightly to the left. At practically the same moment, the nose of the aircraft hit the west wall and the left engine hit the ground. 

The plane hit at the first floor level, just inside Wedge 1, and travelled at an angle of about 45degrees through the adjacent Wedge 2, penetrating into C ring.

Fortunately, the Pentagon had been undergoing renovations, which started with Wedge 1, and included reinforced steel construction, blast-proof windows, and fireproof Kevlar cloth. With those renovations five days from completion, the offices in that wedge had not yet been completely re-occupied, and the offices in Wedge 2 had already been emptied in preparation for work to begin there. Therefore, by sheer chance, the plane had not only struck the part of the building with the fewest people inside, but also the part which had the strongest structure.

Philip Smith, branch chief of the US Army, said:

“It was truly a miracle that the plane hit the strongest part of the Pentagon – it had been completely renovated to all the new antiterrorism standards – and it was virtually unoccupied. In any other wedge of the Pentagon, there would have been 5,000 people, and the plane would have flown right through the middle of the building.”

Still, the impact was devastating. The plane had been fully-loaded for a transcontinental flight, with several thousand gallons of jet fuel on board, and it had struck at something like 530mph, or 850km/h. 

According to “Defense Studies Series: Pentagon 9/11” published by the Historical Office of the Office of the Secretary of Defense:

“Multiple explosions occurred as the plane smashed through the building. The front part of the relatively weak fuselage disintegrated, but the mid-section and tail-end continued moving for another fraction of a second, progressively destroying segments of the building further inward. The chain of destruction resulted in parts of the plane ending up inside the Pentagon in reverse of the order they had entered it, with the tail-end of the airliner penetrating the greatest distance into the building. Remarkably, these circumstances meant that the bodies of the passengers in the rear of the aircraft traveled deeper into the ground floor of the building than did those in the front. The largest concentration of body parts was found at the deepest area of penetration- the C Ring.”

However, due to the sheer size of the building, many inside the Pentagon didn’t immediately realise what had happened.

Scott Kocher was a contractor there at the time.

“We were standing there watching the events at the Trade Center when all of a sudden there was a loud boom. It sounded like somebody had dropped a large safe on the floor above us. I’d say not more than 60 seconds to two minutes later there was a report on the news saying that the Pentagon had been rocked by an explosion. Obviously we all turned and looked at each other, because we were in the Pentagon.”

And, even with knowledge of what was happening in New York, few thought of a plane crashing into the building.

Steven Carter was the Pentagon’s assistant building manager.

“The fire alarm system for the building was sounding in a massive area of Wedge 1 – there was smoke and fire and water flow from the sprinkler system. I thought possibly it had been a truck bomb or a briefcase bomb. The number of fire alarms coming in showed 355 alarms and climbing, so I was leaning more toward a truck bomb.”

Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, was in his office when the plane hit.

“The building shook and the tables jumped. I assumed it was a bomb.”

Victoria “Torie” Clarke, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, later said:

“I thought there must have been a car bomb. What’s extraordinary to me is that we knew two commercial airliners had hit the Trade Center, a terrorist attack, and smart people were guessing it was al-Qaeda. Yet when something bad happened here, it didn’t occur to us that it was another airliner. That’s how unfathomable it was. It never occurred to us that it was another plane.”

Many of the offices affected belonged to the army’s personnel services and the Navy Operation Center.

Sheila Moody and Louise Rogers were accountants in the Resource Services Office; it was their first day in the renovated offices at the Pentagon.

Moody later recalled:

“A burst of hot air hit my face. The burst was so strong – it had so much force – that it forced me to close my eyes. When I opened my eyes there was a ball of fire shooting right to the right of me. I was in shock. The building was shaking- there was debris and things falling from the ceiling. The ceiling opened up, and I was covered in some liquid. To this day I still really don’t know what it was.”

Rogers had just started sending a fax when the plane hit.

“At first I thought I’d blown up the fax machine. It’s like the initial stage of shock- I thought, My God, what did I do? Then I realised it wasn’t me. I smelled the jet fuel. Being around the air force for 30-some years in one way or another, I recognised jet fuel when I smelled it.”

Philip Smith was making photocopies at the time of the impact.

“That copy machine is probably what saved my life, because it was between me and the incoming flight of the plane. Within a few feet of where I was there, two teammates were killed. They were in cubicles that were just eight or ten feet from me.”

Lt. Col. Rob Grunewald, an information management officer for the US Army, was in an enclosed conference room, where they had not heard anything about the attacks on New York.

“At 9:38 I felt a low rumble, the floor began to shake, and then there was an explosion. A big fireball came through the ceiling, and the wall in front of me fractured. The ceiling – one of those Styrofoam-type ceilings – exploded into a million pieces, and the room instantaneously went dark.”

John Yates, security manager, also recalled the sudden darkness.

“I was blown through the air, and when I landed the room was black. Totally black. There was furniture strewn everywhere. It was hot- the smoke came down to within a foot of the floor… You were in a black room, you didn’t know where you are. What’s the first thing you do? You put your hands out to try to find where you are. Everything I touched burned me.”

One difference between the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was that, as military personnel, many of the occupants of the Pentagon were trained to react to crises, and respond quickly under pressure. 

Dennis Smith was one of the first responders.

“I had turnout gear, fire department self-contained breathing apparatus. I had air for an hour. I was sweeping every room to see if anyone was still alive. As I made my way through the smoke and flames, there was water all over the floor, nine or ten inches on the floor because the pipes had broken. Stairwells were like waterfalls. There were body parts floating around. I saw a foot, a torso, a lady hanging upside down from a chair. Someone’s head sitting on a file cabinet, totally burned. I found people sitting at a conference table totally charred. I found a man standing with his arms up in defense, leaning against the wall. Apparently, he saw it coming. He was totally burned. I went floor to floor on the collapsed fourth corridor side and yelled to see if anybody was still alive. I didn’t find anyone.”

Rumsfeld himself quickly made for the area of impact. Aubrey Davis, an officer with the Protective Service Unit, remembered:

“The secretary came out the door and asked what was going on. I told him we were getting a report that an aircraft had hit the Mall side of the building. He looked at me and immediately went toward the Mall. I said, “Sir, do you understand, that’s the area of impact, the Mall.” He kept going… As we proceeded down that hallway, a colonel ran up with a cut on his head and said, “Sir, it’s dangerous, don’t go down there.””

Ignoring that advice, Rumsfeld went out to offer what help he could, only once he’d established there were enough responders available did he return to the command center. Before doing so, he picked up a small piece of twisted metal, something he would keep as a constant reminder of the tragedy in coming years.

Inside, those who were trapped helped each other as much as possible. Grunewald recalled:

“A friend of mine down the table, Martha Cardin, yelled for help and I told Martha, “I got you, Martha. I’ll come get you.” Where everybody went and how they get out of the room is very unique, because those are where decisions are made that are fatal, or cause injury, or cause mental fatigue, or great consternation. A bunch of my officemates that were in that meeting went in one direction and unfortunately didn’t make it. The person that sat to my right, the person that sat to my left, apparently went out the door and took a right, and they went into the E-Ring, where they apparently perished. A decision to go in one direction or another was very important.”

The order was immediately given to evacuate the building. However, that was not an order everyone wanted to obey.

Capt. Paul Larson, of the Arlington County Police Department, recalled:

“When I got there, there was probably a wall of two or three thousand military personnel coming out of the building, and as soon as they heard the screams for help, all of them immediately turned around and went right back into the building to help whoever needed help.”

Many recalled how difficult it was to see; with heavy smoke and intense fire, visibility was severely reduced, and without full equipment it was extremely dangerous to enter the building. 

Nevertheless, Carter recalled:

“There was a large contingent of Pentagon occupants dipping their shirts into the water that was accumulating and putting them over their faces and attempting to reenter the building to help get people out.”

Army chef, Staff Sgt. Christopher Braman, and legislative liaison officer Lt. Col. Ted Anderson were amongst those intent on rescuing their colleagues.

Anderson recalled:

“I got as close to the building as I could, trying to find a door that we could get into. We found two women out on the ground next to the building. They had been thrown out by people who were rescuing folks inside. One woman was conscious. The other was unconscious. I picked up the conscious lady. She had a broken hip and was in horrible, horrible pain. Both had been terribly flash-burned. The fire was bearing down on us. The heat was horrendous. I told her it was going to hurt, and I picked her up and threw her on my back. She screamed in pain. I ran her about 400 yds to the other side of the helipad. Chris Braman carried the other lady. We laid them there and other people came up to render aid. Chris and I ran back.”

Finding an opening near the point of impact, Anderson and Braman crawled inside.

“Inside we screamed for people to come toward our voices. We couldn’t see anything. The smoke was billowing and it was hard to breathe. I got on the floor and I felt my way down the wall. I felt a body right in front of the door. It was a woman, extremely heavyset. She was conscious. She was bleeding from the ears and the mouth, and she was definitely in shock. She was pinned against the wall by a huge safe… It seemed like forever, but we were finally able to pull her free. We had to drag her from the building.”

They went in again; this time they saw a man on fire. They jumped on him to smother the flames as quickly as possible.

“He was burned- horribly, horribly burned – from the top of his head all the way to the bottom of his feet. He had no colour in his eyes. They were all white. I could see it was a civilian because he had a suit on. You could see that he had a white shirt on, but the whole front had been burned away. The back of his collar was still affixed, the belt to his pants was still affixed and melted into the side of his body. Everything else was charred black down the front.”

Inside, in almost complete darkness, it was difficult for survivors to navigate through cubicle office spaces that made it difficult to tell which way they were going. Grunewald recalled:

“The smoke was beginning to get very thick, and was coming down further and further and further, and we were crawling on our hands and knees. You can’t see where you’re going, and because of the force of the blow, there were chairs thrown about, there were desks thrown about, file cabinets had fallen over, and copiers and faxes and walls. I pushed things out of the way. Martha was holding onto my belt, and we kept going.”

Rogers was fortunate to find herself close to an exit route.

“The only noise was the crackling of flames, and it was sheer devastation. I remember the grit from the soot in my teeth… fortunately being at the fax machine, I was standing in front of a table, a worktable, that was in front of the window. Then I tried to figure out if I could get my feet out of the debris. I picked up one foot after the other and walked over to the table. The window had been blown out by the impact, and I climbed out… As I was walking out the window, the very first Pentagon police car came around the building… I told him, “I saw someone else in the office that couldn’t get out.” She was alive – I didn’t realise that not everyone was alive at that point – but she was having trouble. He came back with some help, some others, to get her out. She went into the intensive care ward, but she was one of the ones that didn’t make it.”

Moody was in a state of shock.

“I was still seated at my desk with my hands on my lap, and I really hadn’t moved other than from the force that pushed me back a little. Burning debris from the ceiling fell and landed on my hands. I shook my hands, I got up out of my chair, and I started to look around. Everything around me was on fire… I could see a window to the right of me. It was too far up. I was able to reach it with my hand and try to bang on it, but the glass was too thick. When I hit the window, I left a blood print of my hand on the window. I didn’t even realize at the time that I was bleeding.”

She heard a voice calling, and called back, but the smoke and fumes took her voice away.

“Coughing and choking, something ran through my mind and said, clap your hands. I started to clap my hands together as hard and as loud as I could, hoping that he could follow the sound.”

The voice belonged to Braman, and he did follow the sound.

“Her hands were stuck up in this position, her face was covered full of ash. I was told later on that’s a natural fetal position for burn victims. The colonel and I ran her to safety.”

In total, Braman and Anderson made four forays into the burning building, then were stopped by firefighters. The intensity of the fire – and the dangerous condition of the building itself – made it too dangerous. They argued, even bringing a three-star general into the argument, but were eventually overruled by the fire captain.

“I have since come to know that the fire captain was correct to do so. I am now certain that they saved my life and I’m certain they saved Chris’s life as well… I have talked to firemen who later went into that area, and there was no way out.”

Nearly everyone who was rescued from the Pentagon was brought out within the first 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, as emergency responders from throughout the area arrived at the building, confusion and fear swept through the scene as rapidly as the flames.

Chris Combs, an FBI special agent, recalled the moment they heard that another plane was off radar and heading their way.

“It was on track to D.C., and it was 20 minutes’ flight time out. They said we had 20 minutes.”

This is presumed to be incomplete news of United Flight 93; it was about twenty minutes from Washington when it crashed. However, thinking that another attack was imminent, James Schwarz, the assistant chief for operations at Arlington County Fire Department, decided to evacuate the Pentagon incident scene. They couldn’t afford to have everybody there if another plane hit them.

Combs recalled:

“We looked around and decided the safest places were under the overpasses on the highways. We sent everyone there… It was pretty eerie – the Pentagon is absolutely in flames, and there are thousands of first responders and people from the Pentagon huddled underneath all these overpasses, waiting.”

It must have been extremely frustrating for everyone there; every minute they waited, the fire got worse, and people were still inside, perhaps waiting desperately for rescue. However, that wait may have been worse for combat photographers Marine Corporal Jason Ingersoll and Navy Petty Officer Kevin Rimrodt, who had been enlisted by Combs to document the scene. He asked them to stand in the open, so that if another aircraft did come that way, they could photograph it prior to impact. Fortunately, that did not prove necessary. News came that Flight 93 had crashed, and the rescue effort could resume.

Capt. Robert Gray was with Technical Rescue, Station 4 of Arlington County Fire Department.

“It was overwhelming. We basically started on the first floor and worked our way in. It was obvious on the first floor once we got all the way to where the plane had hit that there weren’t any survivors.”

Fire Captain Charles Gibbs remembered:

“The military had their corps people with stretchers and all that, but there were no people.”

At 10:15am, around the time that the responders were pulled back, a large section of the outer wall collapsed; starting from the second floor, the hole was about 95 feet (about 30m) wide at the first floor level, and extended around 50 feet (15m) from the outside to the inner wall of E Ring, which remained standing.

A later report by the  American Society of Civil Engineers concluded that:

“The direct impact of the aircraft destroyed the load capacity of about 30 first-floor columns and significantly impaired that of 20 others… This impact may have also destroyed the load capacity of about six second-floor columns adjacent to the exterior wall. Shattering the many columns essentially doubled the span between columns, thereby imposing severe stress on the stability of the affected building section and causing collapse of the four floors in the E Ring above the impact point.”

Even as the fires continued burning, the investigation effort was well underway. Combs recalled that they were “really working frantically to collect as much evidence on the outside of that building that we could.”

While obviously not wanting to get in the way of the firefighting and rescue efforts, it was important to try and retrieve important evidence before it could be trampled or run over by responders, or taken as souvenirs. They quickly established line searches to locate and identify anything that might be relevant.

“We’re trying to find any piece of an airplane, any personal effects. We’re very conscious of any remains. There were pieces of aircraft in every direction hundreds of yards away. In fact they found pieces of the airplane in Arlington Cemetery, which was across a four-lane highway and another 200 yards of grass.”

Inside, Rumsfeld had returned to the National Military Command Center to formulate a response. Communications were poor – an overwhelming problem throughout the government’s response that day – and once the air conditioning failed, smoke began to infiltrate the command center.

Rumsfeld recalled that “It was hard to see, your eyes were smarting, and it was hard on your throat.” Although there were repeated suggestions that he should leave, he had decided to stay as long as possible. At one point, an air quality specialist with the fire department advised them that parts of the Pentagon had a lethal concentration of 88% carbon dioxide; 

“In the outer office here in the NMCC you’re at 33% oxygen. In the SCIF you’re at 16% oxygen, and you cannot survive at 13%. You need to leave.”

Meanwhile, the survivors had to get home, and just as in New York, they had to do so on foot.

Anderson later said:

“Along with a buddy of mine, we were trying to figure out how we were going to get home. Everything was inside, including my car keys. We started strolling off, two well-dressed guys who looked like they had fallen off the turnip truck and dragged through an onion field. We were caked in soot and blood. It was nasty-looking. We got on a Metro train headed toward Springfield, Virginia, and people looked at us in disbelief.”

Queues formed at every public telephone in the vicinity, as everyone tried to make contact with their families and reassure them. However, some were never able to make that call.

Martin Frost, then a member of the House of Representatives, later recalled:

“At the time, my wife was the adjutant general of the army – she was a one star general- and she’d been scheduled to be at a meeting with her boss at the Pentagon that morning. She was not able to go – she sent two of her staff. The point of impact of the plane at the Pentagon was her boss’s office- a three star general. He was killed, and my wife’s two staff who were attending the meeting were killed.”

Hunor also lost colleagues.

“I saw one of my coworker’s wives – she was very pregnant, and she had an ashen look on her face. I didn’t realize it at the time, but her husband was still missing. Out of the four people from my team who were missing, they managed to locate two that day, but her husband was never located. No remains were ever found.”

In total, there were 125 fatalities in the Pentagon; the majority were on the first floor, and all between Corridors 4 and 5. 55 were military, and 70 civilians – including 10 contractors. Almost all of them died that day; Antoinette Sherman, a budget analyst, died six days later in hospital.

Most of the victims died very quickly; many from blunt force injuries caused by the impact and collapse of the structure. Comparatively few died from burns or asphyxiation due to the fire.

Another 106 injured people needed treatment at area hospitals, most suffering from burns or smoke inhalation. The smoke had spread far beyond the flames, reaching halfway around the building, and into the central A ring on the lower floors. 

In addition, everyone on board American 77 was killed; their deaths would have been almost instant. The 59 passengers and crew included two flight attendants who were husband and wife; three 11-year old children, accompanied by three teachers and two escorts from the National Geographic Society, on a field trip California; a couple headed for their honeymoon, and a family of four, their children aged 8 and 3. There were also two Department of Defense employees on board, whose offices were in the Pentagon. Renee May, the purser, was pregnant; her entry on the 9/11 Memorial in New York reads, “Renee May and her unborn child.”

In total, 184 innocent lives – plus the five hijackers responsible for ending them.

The renovations at the Pentagon had, no doubt, reduced the number of casualties in several ways. The work meant that there were fewer people in the area most affected by the impact and fires, and the fact that the structure of Wedge 1 had been reinforced curtailed the extent to which the plane could penetrate. If it had struck, for example, Wedge 5, there would have been some 5,000 people working in the area, and without the reinforcement the plane might have penetrated all five rings. 

However, in other ways, it was not helpful. Those who had only just moved into Wedge 1 offices were naturally not familiar with the layout, making it more difficult for them to find a way out, and, as noted by Grunewald, the decision of which way to turn meant life or death for many of them. There were also wooden construction barriers in some of the corridors, intended to stop people straying into the area under work, which may have prevented escape instead. A later assessment found that “many survivors said that they were not aware of evacuation plans for the areas of the building in which they worked and that there had been no drills during the period of time they occupied their new space.” 

There were also issues with the evacuation; because of the size of the building, fire alarms sounding in one wedge would not automatically mean that they sounded in other wedges. The building’s “Big Voice” pa system was used to order an evacuation, but it “did not amplify well or reach all parts of the building; in some parts it was difficult or impossible to understand.” Security officers had to enter the building, pounding on doors, to ensure that everyone evacuated as necessary.

Throughout the rest of that day, firefighters and other emergency responders continued to comb through the wreckage, while armed guards were positioned around the area to provide security.

Captain Aaron Barta was commander of the Military District of Washington Engineer Company. He would later recall being frustrated when they arrived, because the fires meant they were not able to go straight into the building. It was around 2 or 3pm before they could enter.

“Not only was there fire smoldering from all of the jet fuel and the equipment, but we had a lot of broken pipes that were spraying out scalding hot water, busted sewer pipes, water from the fire trucks coming into the Pentagon … and (the building) was still full of smoke. It was very hot in there, so we had on monitors to tell us if the oxygen was too low. In some places, we weren’t able to get too far.”

Chuck Cake, a firefighter and EMT, arrived some time after 4:30.

“I was sent to the interior. We were deployed to the C Ring to look for survivors, and to take care of spot fires. There was wreckage everywhere, and little spot fires all over the place, except there were bodies thrown in with it, too. There were still many, many victims in the building, most of them uniformed… A lot of the people were burned beyond recognition. But somehow the insignias all survived, and on some of the uniforms, you could still see the patchwork and stuff. We went and got body bags and sheets to put over people, even if for no other reason than to make us feel better.” 

At 5:25 on the evening of the attack, even though the fires were still not out, Rumsfeld announced that September 12th was to be a normal work day. A press conference was held at 6pm, with smoke still in the corridors, to prove that the Pentagon was still operating. 

The following day, work resumed in the undamaged areas of the Pentagon, even as firefighters were forced to make firebreaks in the roof to stop the fires from spreading. About a third of the building was unusable due to either fire damage, or water damage from the firefighting efforts.

The 12th was not a normal day for Vaughn Allex, the ticket agent working at Washington Dulles Airport. He was interviewed by FBI agents, who showed him the manifest for American 77.

“I looked at the FBI agents and they looked at me and they knew, and I just went, ‘I did it, didn’t I?’ They said, ‘You did what?’ I said, “I did it, I put them on the plane.””

He not only remembered the hijackers, but other parties who had checked in with him; the student group, a retiree and his wife, people he had taken the time to talk to before they boarded. Co-workers wouldn’t look at him, and Allex would feel a guilt that lasted for many years. “It was pretty bad, it was pretty much a bottomless pit for a long time.”

However, it is important to remember that security was not as tight then; Allex had merely done what he was supposed to. The security failures that allowed them to reach that point were not his fault. The knives they carried on board were legal, they just had to be less than four inches long. Their passports and tickets were valid. No-one had put any of them on a “no-fly” list. And no-one had enough information to stop them.

At 6pm on the 12th, it was announced that the fires were controlled, but still not out. It took three days to finally extinguish the flames. Then, soldiers like Barta would spend days combing through and methodically removing the debris – and the bodies. In honour of their role, his company would later be renamed the 911th Technical Rescue Engineer Company.

Lieutenant Colonel William Lee, a chaplain with the Maryland National Guard, later recalled one of the most dramatic moments in the recovery, as related in the Defense Studies publication:

“”A stillness fell over the recovery workers as a child’s pajamas were pulled from the debris.” A Barbie doll followed, then a child’s foot. …it became horribly personalized… when he learned about the child whose remains he had seen, probably, he thought, those of eight-year-old Zoe Falkenberg, “my heart nearly stopped, and hot tears welled in my eyes:’ Apparently she loved to dance and “had perfect ballerina feet.””

In the early hours of Friday the 14th, the “black boxes” from American 77 were recovered. Unfortunately, the cockpit voice recorder was too damaged for any information to be retrieved; according to a report from the NTSB, “The majority of the recording tape was fused into a solid block of charred plastic.”

The flight data recorder did reveal some details, but many of the possible parameters were missing. For example, it didn’t record the status of the flight deck door, which might have indicated exactly when the hijacking occurred – however there was also no requirement for this to be recorded. 

In the days that followed, a large portion of the North Parking Area was taken over by the investigation. Floodlights allowed the work to go on around the clock, as all of the debris removed from the building was sifted through, searching for human remains, personal effects, parts of the airplane and more. 

The nature of the Pentagon meant that security had to be tight; returning workers were not allowed into damaged parts of the building to retrieve personal effects that they’d left behind, because several top security areas had been breached. At one point, Vice President Dick Cheney, being shown around by Fire Chief Ed Plaugher, was refused entry to the damaged area, referred to as the “red zone”, as he did not have the special badge required.

“The guard said, ”I’m sorry, Mr. Vice President;’ and denied him entry.

Plaugher eased the refusal by telling Cheney that he probably did not want to enter the building because he would then have to be decontaminated.

The vice president replied, “Absolutely right. I don’t need a field shower.”

The damaged area of the Pentagon had held a huge number of confidential documents. Hundreds of file cabinets and safes, weighing up to 1,200lbs (about 544kg) had been burned, mangled and crushed; now they were dragged out of the building and brought to a secure area to be checked. Many couldn’t be identified, since the plates or cards on the front had burned or melted, and melted locks stopped many from being opened. The fire department lent out their “jaws of life”, hydraulic equipment usually used to open crashed cars, so they could be opened; it was so effective that the Defense Protective Services then ordered their own. Teams were assigned from various affected offices to review the material inside, which could then either be taken back to the office or incinerated as appropriate.

The South Parking area was also taken over by a variety of tents and facilities set up for the care of the responders; 

“Food and aid assistance from the Red Cross and Salvation Army; chaplains and counselors; supplies and food services donated by commercial establishments; a small post exchange; ice and hand-washing stations; light towers, telephones, and latrines.

NCIS Special Agent Michelle Jackson, who worked on the sifting operation, observed: “Food was never a problem. You never had to leave the scene. You could eat, drink, change your clothes, brush your teeth-all right there”

Meanwhile, families and friends of people missing in the attack frequently gathered on a nearby hill, where they could see the building. Many left flowers, flags and other tributes; on Saturday the 15th, a memorial board was installed, and quickly filled with photographs of the dead. At a nearby hotel, the Pentagon Family Assistance Center was quickly set up, giving relatives somewhere to go for information, counselling, advice on benefits and even child care while parents were using those services. A volunteer group of therapy dogs were also brought to the center, helping to calm and comfort adults and children alike.

Human remains were transported to the Dover Port Mortuary in Delaware for identification; all but five of the victims would eventually be identified, but the process took two months, an anguishing wait for many of the relatives.More than 400 people were involved in the identifications, including specialists from the Smithsonian Institution, the FBI, and the Army’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. 

The Defense Studies publication detailed the process:

“Where possible, FBI agents took fingerprints that could be matched against a database containing the prints of DoD uniformed personnel and civilian employees. Whole-body radiographs documented injuries, the age of victims, and the presence of teeth and jewelry.

Wallets, purses, credit cards, badges, military “dog tags;’ or other identifying materials accompanied some bodies. These and any other personal effects kept with the remains throughout the identification process were removed, photographed, and accounted for; two individuals were always present to witness the handling of such items. Once it was determined that these items had no further use as evidence, they were forwarded to casualty assistance officers who returned them to next of kin…. The tremendous energy generated by the impact of the airliner as it slammed into the building fragmented many bodies, making it impossible to identify them by visual means or by doing an autopsy. In these instances forensic anthropologists and state-of-the-art techniques and equipment were brought to bear.

Eight anthropologists worked alongside the radiologists and pathologists. Investigators matched the DNA profiles of 50 military fatalities with the samples kept on file at the Armed Forces Repository of Specimen Samples for the Identification of Remains. In other instances, they compared specimens with the DNA supplied by family members.”

Of the five victims whose remains were never identified, two were from the army, two from the navy, and Dana Falkenberg, the youngest child who had been on board the aircraft. The remains of the hijackers were identified, in as much as they knew those five bodies did not belong to any of the innocent victims, and turned over to the FBI. 

The Defense Department awarded medals in honour of those lost; military families received the Purple Heart, and civilian families the Medal for the Defense of Freedom, created in October 2001 as a civilian equivalent of the Purple Heart. The injured also received these awards, while more than 200 employees of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Defense Intelligence Agency received these or other medals. The Medal for Valor was created in September 2001 to recognize acts of heroism or sacrifice by civilians, and was presented to 17 Defense Protective Service officers and 22 Real Estate and Facilities Directorate employees from the Pentagon.

The first Pentagon memorial service was held on the 11th of October, just one month after the attack, and plans for a permanent memorial overlooking the scene of destruction began even while the destroyed part of the Pentagon was being rebuilt and reoccupied.

Starting on the 18th of October, the part which was beyond repair was demolished in just one month and one day; by the time the first anniversary came around, workers were already moving back into offices in the E ring of Wedge 1. Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz declared that “like the mythical Phoenix bird, the building, too, has risen from its ashes to be reborn.”

By February 2003, Wedge 1 was at full occupancy, and the renovation of the rest of the building resumed at a faster pace, its efficacy having been proven.

Two memorials were planned; one inside the building, the other outside. An American Heroes Memorial opened in May 2002 on the 3rd floor apex area of Corridors 9 and 10 – directly opposite the damaged section – displaying many of the items that had been left in tribute. Later, a permanent memorial and chapel were established at the point of impact; 1st Floor, E Ring. This memorial includes a book with a page for each of the victims, while the chapel has an art glass window with an individual piece of glass for each victim. 

The exterior memorial consists of 184 cantilevered benches, each with a small reflecting pool beneath, and each marked with the name of one of the victims. A wall alongside the memorial starts at a height of three inches, and ends at a height of 71 inches, representing the ages of the youngest and oldest victims. The memorial was dedicated and opened to the public on the 11th of September, 2008.


Thanks this episode go to:

I’d like to say a special thank you to Patreon supporters:

become_a_patron_button
  • Lisa Chase
  • Michael Shafer
  • John Payne
  • Charlotte Fearn
  • Catherine Aitken
  • Jay Foringer
  • Elena Tyler
  • Laura Pina
  • AMW
  • Ben Douglas
  • Kylie Green
  • Sterling Hampe
  • D Brown
  • Lee Davis
  • Gloria Ambrowiak
  • Julie Esson
  • Renee Maunder
  • Okamifan 1 Productions
  • Amanda
  • Scott R C
  • Shana Gitnick
  • Missa
  • Michael Fay
  • LouLi
  • Skeleheron
  • Mish Liddle
  • J Fay

and to all of you for listening and reading. Supporting the Great Disasters podcast on Patreon can give you access to exclusive content, helps the show keep going, and helps me to keep the show ad-free.

You can also support the show by buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi.


Sources, References and Further Reading

Comments are closed.