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News - September 12, 2001
A Hijacked Boeing 757 Slams Into the Pentagon
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| Rescue workers on the scene on Tuesday in Virginia || |
By DON VAN NATTA and LIZETTE ALVAREZ
WASHINGTON, Sept. 11 — A hijacked passenger plane sliced into the Pentagon today, triggering a thunderous explosion and fierce fires at the defense complex and killing and wounding an unknown number of people.
The surprise terrorist assault, the first in the history of the 58-year-old building, came within an hour of the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center and set off a state of emergency in the nation's capital that swiftly shut down the government. All federal office buildings were closed, and F-16 fighter jets and helicopters were dispatched to police the skies.
Smoke engulfing the area, and the sight of people trained for war fleeing in shock and fear underscored the vulnerability of the American military. It also revealed the inability of the most sophisticated early warning systems in the world to stop a low-tech, tried-and-true form of terrorism: hijacking.
American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757 carrying 58 passengers and six crew members, was on a scheduled flight from Dulles International Airport west of Washington to Los Angeles when it was diverted and slammed into the five-sided, five-story concrete-walled structure at about 9:30 a.m., when Pentagon workers are well into their workday.
More than 10 hours after the terrorist attack, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld struggled to give the impression of business-as- usual in a brief appearance in the Pentagon pressroom.
He called the terrorist act a "vicious, well-coordinated, massive attack against the United States of America."
Many of the Pentagon's more than 20,000 civilians and military personnel were already on edge when the attack came. News of the crashes at the trade center had shot through the corridors and it seemed as if every office television was turned on. Military and civilian employees watched in disbelief as smoke engulfed the two towers.
In a macabre foreshadowing of what then happened, Mike Slater, a former Marine, told his coworkers, "We're next."
Then the Pentagon, built to withstand terrorist attacks, shook like a rickety roller coaster. A section of it collapsed and burned. "It sounded like a roar," said Mr. Slater, who was 500 yards away from where the jet slammed into the Pentagon's west side. "I knew it was a bomb or something."
Within the last year, the Pentagon had put up shatter-reducing Mylar sheeting to reduce the impact of a potential terrorist bomb.
Mr. Slater said he braced himself for a second explosion since he knew there had been two airplanes that crashed into the trade center in Lower Manhattan. Instead, blue-and- white strobe lights and wailing sirens alerted those inside to evacuate. Evacuation orders were also sounded over a loudspeaker. Smoke quickly filled the air, but the lights stayed on.
Indeed, shortly after the evacuation, warnings were broadcast of a reported second plane approaching the building, but it did not arrive.
As soon as Mr. Slater stepped outside, he saw and smelled something uncomfortably familiar. "I saw a mass of oily smoke and thought of the oil fields of Kuwait," he said. "There were 3,000 Americans killed in Pearl Harbor, this will be at least that many, if not more, and I hope Congress has the guts to do something about it."
When the Pentagon was built as a fireproof, air-conditioned headquarters for the American military in 16 months in the early 1940's, it was considered an engineering marvel. Even now, the building, which has three times the floor space of the Empire State Building and houses 24,000 employees, is considered one of the best architectural achievements of the 20th century.
Over the years, there have been a number of terrorist bomb threats that resulted in tightened security at the Pentagon. In 1987, a 29-year-old gunman was shot dead at one of the Pentagon's entrances after he pulled out a gun and tried to enter an area near the National Military Command Center. But never before, even in the tensest days of the cold war, had there been a terrorist attack against the Pentagon.
Mr. Rumsfeld was in his office on the third floor of the outer ring when he heard and felt the crash on the other side of the building. The 69- year-old former Navy pilot was jolted and rushed to the scene. "He went outside the building and was helpful in getting several people that were injured onto stretchers," said a Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley. "He was out there 15 minutes or so helping the injured."
Then Mr. Rumsfeld headed to the National Military Command Center, the secure operational nerve center below his office, even though it was permeated with smoke. There, Mr. Rumsfeld, Gen. Richard B. Myers, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and other top military and civilian aides remained sequestered through the day to discuss military options.
Police officers immediately blocked all highways and roads leading into the Pentagon and the Metro mass transit lines were detoured to avoid the underground station at the Pentagon and several stations around it.
The Pentagon converted one area into a field hospital, filling it with ambulances, fire engines and other emergency vehicles. Search-and-rescue equipment, cranes and dog-sniffing units swarmed the area; troops in riot gear ringed various military bases.
But throughout the day at the Pentagon building itself, rescue workers, blocked by fire and smoke, were repeatedly thwarted in their struggle to reach the central crash site.
Pentagon officials said that many casualties may have been averted because the plane exploded in a newly renovated area of the Pentagon where some offices were not yet occupied. The area had been fitted with blast resistant windows, which may also have helped to cushion the impact.
All children in the Pentagon's day care center, which is on the opposite side of the building from the crash site, were evacuated.
But among military personnel and civilians close to the blast, there were stories of predictions, harrowing escapes and talk of revenge.
Marine Corps Maj. Eric Stone had just walked out of the Pentagon after watching the coverage of the trade center attack. He recalled telling a friend, "If I were a terrorist, this would be the second place I would bomb."
Army Maj. Clyde Dopheide and Randy Flisak, a civilian who works at the Army Audit Agency, had just begun a classified briefing when the plane crashed approximately 100 yards from their office. "We saw the fireball, and the corridor filled up with smoke in minutes." The two men crouched to get under the smoke, evacuating the building in just two minutes.
For Major Dopheide, fear was quickly surpassed by rage. "They tried to kill me," he said. "We've got to go get them."
Other witnesses said the plane crash was followed by an explosion about 15 minutes later that could be heard miles away — apparently the sound of a large portion of the Pentagon collapsing.
The Boeing 757 crashed into the outer edge of the building between the first and second floors, "at full power," Mr. Rumsfeld said. It penetrated three of the five concentric rings of the building.
The crash was so powerful that Army Maj. Michael Heidt said he felt the building sway where he was working in nearby Crystal City. Mr. Heidt ran from his office to the Pentagon, and noticed that the area of the Pentagon that was damaged was the portion that had recently been closed for renovations. "If there is a silver lining in this, it is that this hit the part of the Pentagon under renovations where the fewest people were working," he said.
Tom Joyce, a Navy captain, was reading at his desk on the fifth floor in the building's fifth wing, when the plane hit. The impact knocked him out of his chair. "The whole building shook," Captain Joyce said. "Smoke started coming into the building."
Pentagon personnel said the evacuation from the building was orderly. People filed out and were told to leave a one-mile buffer between them and the building. Some walked for miles to get home. Others hitched a ride. Still others took the Metro or bus. "We are trained not to panic," Navy Capt. Leigh Method said. "There were people upset, mostly civilians."
By 7 p.m., the fire was still burning, but under control, according to Secretary Thomas White of the Army. Mr. Rumsfeld said it was impossible to calculate how many were dead or wounded in the crash, but added somberly, "It will not be a few."
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has secured the site. Since the attack, firefighters have been working from the outside, and the extent of the damage is still not clear.