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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com
Boston Globe Online / Nation | World
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After assault on Pentagon, orderly response

A short time after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, a plane was flown into a section of the Pentagon in Washington. Firefighters fought all night to put the remaining fires out. (AP PHOTO)

By Robert Schlesinger and Wayne Washington, Globe Staff, 9/12/2001

WASHINGTON - After the devastating attack yesterday on the Pentagon, the huge building was quickly evacuated with help from the defense secretary in a fashion that witnesses said was extraordinarily orderly and calm. But the image of a brutal gash torn in the headquarters of the world's most powerful military left many stunned.

The terrorist attack with a hijacked American Airlines jet caved in a recently renovated section of the massive, five-sided building, and fires raged for hours - preventing emergency personnel from entering damaged sections. Debris was found hundreds of yards from the building, with police using tape to mark off the potential evidence.

At an early evening news conference, a drawn looking Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said ''it's not possible'' to know the number of casualties in the 24,000-employee building.

Rumsfeld was in his office around a corner of the building from where the plane hit. He immediately headed toward the crash site and assisted injured people onto stretchers before proceeding back to the smoky but still functional command center, where he remained for the balance of the day.

The nation's defense last night remained on ''Threat Level Delta,'' the highest state of alert.

Rodney Washington, a systems engineer for a Pentagon contractor, was stuck in stand-still traffic a few hundred yards from the Pentagon when the American Airlines jet roared overhead from the southwest.

''It was extremely loud, as you can imagine, a plane that size, it was deafening,'' Washington said.

The plane was flying low and rapidly descended, Washington said, knocking over light poles before hitting the ground on a helicopter pad just in front of the Pentagon and essentially bouncing into it.

It ''landed there and the momentum took it into the Pentagon,'' Washington said. ''There was a very, very brief delay and then it exploded.''

Washington speculated that it could have been worse: ''If it had kept altitude a little bit higher it probably would have landed in the middle of the Pentagon, in that court.''

One witness whose office was deep within the section of the Pentagon that was struck said the explosion seemed to last five or six seconds.

''It wasn't like a rumble, it was just - boom,'' said Tom Van Leunen of the Navy Public Affairs Office. ''It was shocking. ... It immediately put you on your heels, in fact in my case, actually, it kind of knocked me down.''

Staff members and officers all over the Pentagon had been glued to their televisions, trying to comprehend the explosions that had rocked New York City when their own world was shaken, literally, by a long, ''indescribable'' eruption. As the first concussion slammed the building, few could grasp that they had become part of the disaster.

The attack on the nation's military headquarters stunned many.

''There is always, like all Americans, a certain sense of safety because you're an American,'' said Van Leunen, who had been in the Pentagon for only six weeks since returning from a four-year posting in Germany. ''But there's always been significantly more security in the Pentagon than, say, if you work in downtown D.C. or IBM or something. But that security is internal security. ... Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever thought of an airplane flying into the Pentagon.''

Lieutenant David Gai, who was in his office on a far side of the building when the plane hit, was philosophical.

''The risk we assume is part of our lives,'' he said. ''Service to our country is hand-in-hand with assuming the risks.''

Upon the initial evacuation, some building occupants were organized into four-man litter teams to help the wounded, but shortly thereafter they were moved farther from the building when a truck came by warning that a second airplane was in the air and heading toward the Pentagon.

Later in the morning and into the afternoon, F-16 fighter planes could be seen flying overhead along with several military, police, and media helicopters.

Asked at an early afternoon news conference whether the Pentagon has any defenses to prevent such aerial attacks, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral Craig Quigley responded: ''Not that I'm aware of.''

Sitting in his second-floor office not far from the impact point, Lieutenant Colonel Dan Pummill thought construction crews working on refurbishment of that section had ''hit the side of the building with a crane or something.''

All the glass in the office shattered and Pummill was knocked from his chair, but it was not until the dark smoke started billowing down the hallway that he grasped what had happened.

Henry Mody, a mechanic, was driving his maintenance truck through the halls when he heard the terrific boom and saw garbage cans flying down the corridor. He thought it was a transformer blowing up.

''I saw all of that smoke, it looked like a dark sky,'' Mody recalled later, sitting in the grass a couple of hundred yards from the Pentagon.

Mike Walter, a reporter with USA Today, was stuck in traffic during his commute to work, listening to the radio reports of the World Trade Center catastrophe when he saw the American Airlines jetliner fly over too low and too fast. Still it took him several moments to realize what was about to happen. ''At first it didn't register,'' he said. ''I see planes coming into National [airport] all the time. But it was so low.''

He watched the plane pass over a hill separating him from the Pentagon and disappear. Then the boom and the flames climbing into the air.

''It was almost like time stood still,'' Walter said. ''It was surreal.''

This story ran on page A3 of the Boston Globe on 9/12/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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