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Plunging into the fire

For Maj. Lincoln D. Leibner, the day never really ends

By David M. Shribman, Globe Staff, 9/8/2002

WASHINGTON - A couple of days later, for no reason at all, his hands started shaking. To this day, his stomach tightens whenever a jet engine growls overhead. When he drives by the Pentagon, the image never fails to return - the way the plane seemed to accelerate as it moved, deliberately and at screeching speed, from the sky into the building. And at odd times - there's no pattern, really - his mind will play tricks with him, transporting him back to the day that, for Lincoln D. Leibner, never really ends.

This is what he sees: The plane piercing the building. The grass glowing with fire. The burned skin of the man he tried to rescue, and the way that skin came off in his hands as he tried to pull him toward a window and safety.

This is what he hears: The crash, louder than any rock band or artillery fire he can remember. Then the strangest stillness. The screams and the cries and the desperate wails. And then the men yelling: Get away from the building! Get away!

This is what he smells: The smoke. The burned office materials. The unmistakable odor of medical supplies, unwrapped in a hurry in an ambulance, pervading the halls of a hospital.

This is what Major Leibner, US Army, thinks about life after Sept. 11, 2001: ''I'm more fatalistic probably. I'm probably more fearful. Maybe I flatter myself, but I think I've seen the worst that Al Qaeda can do, and as terrible as it was, I know I can handle it and I know we can handle it.''

The sun has risen and set 362 times since Sept. 11. Since then, that very date has become a national shorthand for tragedy and travail, for vulnerability and vengeance. Before noon arrived that day, ordinary people who had dressed for work in their ordinary way had experienced extraordinary pain, stress, loss, and grief. By dusk, America's heart was broken.

But you know all that. You were there. You know, too, that nightfall never really came that day - not for Lincoln Leibner, not for the six others portrayed in the pieces that follow here, not for any of us. A year later - after new security measures, new threats, new trials of our political system and new tests of our sense of justice, new strains of our commitment to civil liberties, even a new kind of war, conducted against a new kind of foe - we are still living on Sept. 11.

Leibner, 39 years old, joined the Army at age 20 as an infantryman, ended up in Special Forces, and built a classic post-Cold War military resume: service in Haiti, Panama, Bosnia, and South Korea. On Sept. 11 he got one of the first and one of the most intimate glimpses of the age that would follow the post-Cold War era.

He wasn't, to be sure, an ingenue strolling blithely into a new landscape. His days at the front lines of international irritants over, Leibner was an executive support officer at the Pentagon, the voice at the other end of the line when someone important - President Bush or National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice - needed to talk with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld at 4 in the morning or overseas somewhere. He knew the dangers the new world held, and the six most terrifying syllables of that new world - Osama bin Laden - were not unfamiliar.

That morning, when he was on the phone with his girlfriend as the second plane hit the World Trade Center in New York, Leibner knew that a terrible line had been crossed. ''I knew exactly what it was when I saw it,'' he said. ''Never for a second did I doubt it. It was an attack.''

So Leibner did what his training and his instincts told him to do, whether it was a submarine colliding with a fishing trawler in the Pacific or a spy plane being forced down in China. He rushed to the Pentagon. It was mid-morning, not his usual time to arrive, and the parking spot he customarily took was filled - a detail that, like so many details on that day, meant little at the time but would mean everything as the hours passed. He settled on a spot in Lane 1 of the South parking lot. He started to jog toward the building.

Then he heard the noise. Leibner had grown up in Arlington, Va., not far from Reagan National Airport, and he knew the jetliners' flight paths. For him, it was a sixth sense, and this sense told him this roar was coming from a very unusual direction. It was, he surmised in the fraction of a second that these calculations sometimes take, probably a military flyover for a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, ground-attack aircraft or fighters sent aloft as a tribute to a fallen soldier. Pretty routine stuff. But then it struck him: No, this was no A10 or F15. This was a passenger jet.

In an instant he saw that he was right. He saw the American Airlines markings. He saw into the windows. He saw the last three or four seconds of the plane's flight.

''There's a tiny part of my mind that might have said it was a wayward plane,'' said Leibner, who was less than a hundred yards from the point of impact on the southwest side of the building. ''Most of me knew it was nothing other than a continuation of the attack.''

The crash of a plane into the world's largest office building - its size a symbol of American military strength, its bunker appearance a symbol of American impregnability - brought a loud noise, black smoke, and a fireball. ''You see something like that,'' Leibner said in a conversation the other day, ''and you knew there is a sheer impossibility that there will be survivors on the aircraft.''

He stood there a second, then another, then still more. He doesn't know how long he stood and watched; all sense of time left him. He only remembers staring at the building and then, propelled by a force he could not resist, running toward it - running toward the burning building as construction workers were running the other way. ''I ran toward the building,'' he would say later, ''because that was what I was supposed to do.''

And when he got there, in direct contradiction to the air-crash scenes he had watched on film or imagined a hundred times, there was no debris. No tail. No piece of the fuselage. There was nothing. There was only the fire in the grass and bits of the building strewn about, with a cruel randomness that made as little sense as the crash itself.

He entered the Pentagon easily - a door had blown completely off its hinges - and within five feet found a woman, dazed and burned but standing and walking. He helped her out of the building. Then he returned, seeing that the plane (which had entered on the floor above ground level) had forced the ceiling to collapse. He heard people inside the building, sobbing, asking for his help. He couldn't see them, but they apparently could see him.

To this day he does not know how many there were, but there, in the smoke and the confusion, they played a version of the swimming-pool game ''Marco Polo'': You're getting closer, they would say. We're over here.

He found two people pinned underneath the debris, and he got them out easily. But breathing was becoming difficult, and he forgot what every third-grader knows about what to do in smoke and fire - stay low. Doors were blocked, halls were clogged. There was a line of people trying to get out.

He helped lower some of them through a window. He doesn't know who they were, though he did get the first name of one of them. It was Stephanie. He talked with her, tried to calm her, asked her what she did at the Pentagon. It was her first day at work.

Then came the warning: Get away from the building! He was helped out through the window, stumbled 15 or 20 yards, and was handed an oxygen mask. Minutes later - as few as three, he estimates, no more than five - the entire front of the impact site collapsed. All of it.

Here are the colored bits of the kaleidoscope of his memory: A general and an enlisted man carrying a victim on a stretcher. An announcement from somewhere (he doesn't know where) that a second plane was hurtling toward the Pentagon. A flight of people from the building. A shove that placed him in an ambulance. Blood on his shirt - other people's, it turned out, but no one knew that then. And inside the ambulance, a strangely comic, almost absurd debate about whether to give morphine to a woman who had a broken leg and serious burns.

One paramedic: We only use that stuff in an emergency.

Another paramedic, in response: What do you think this is?

Leibner had some wounds - cuts and burns on his arms - but he walked out of the hospital and remembers riding with doctors back to the Pentagon, past hundreds of people walking up highways usually choked with automobiles. He made his way to the Executive Support Center, where he works, only to hear his colleagues saying that Secretary Rumsfeld wasn't sure what hit the building - a cruise missile, maybe, or a small aircraft. He was escorted in to see Rumsfeld and told him what he had seen: a commercial aircraft with wheels up and flaps up, a plane that didn't crash into the building but, rather, one that was flown into the building.

He spent the next several hours at his day job, connecting calls between Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta, White House officials, and Air Force One.

And then, at 9:30 p.m., he was ordered home. His Nissan truck was in the parking lot where he had left it.

But nothing else was the same.

''I have a lot of problems,'' Leibner said months later, ''when I think about things.''

For a while he waited anxiously for the next attack. He lived in what he calls ''a defensive position.'' He was, as he put it, ready for battle.

He had been ready before, of course, but this was different. This wasn't Bosnia. This was home.

''I've deployed everywhere, done everything you can do in the US Army,'' he said. ''If you wear battle dress camouflage, you're ready psychologically. If you're somewhere in Korea, you're aware of the direction the threat might come from. But this was different. I never expected to pull women and injured men out of rubble. I never expected to go to war in a Class B uniform.''

It was, in some ways, the Class B uniform - standard office wear, including Oxford shoes and nylon socks - that made the episode so eerie.

''Psychologically you dress the part,'' he went on. ''I wasn't dressed for war. But now when I put on the Class B uniform I know anything can happen, any day. When I drive through Washington I think of it differently. I think of it as a target, as a potential impact site.''

Leibner is a private man, introspective, fiercely jealous of his privacy. When he agreed to meet a reporter, he warned that he would have little to say, that his private feelings would remain that way. But he surprised himself that afternoon over catfish in a gleaming shopping mall, only minutes from the Pentagon. He had lots to say, to us all and for us all:

''I'm not worried about my own skin. I just don't want to see anyone else hurt. I don't believe for a second that we're done with this, but I'm not worried about myself. I'm less afraid of dying now than I was before Sept. 11. I don't know why that is, but it's definitely true.

''I was afraid when I was in the building,'' he continued. ''I could hear the fire. It never occurred to me that the structure would collapse. But I'm not afraid anymore. ... Things come back to me at the oddest times. It happens when my mind is still. I can see and hear those things again.''

He is right. Now, three days short of a year since it happened, things come back to us at the oddest times. It happens when our minds are still. We can hear those things again.

David Shribman can be reached at shribman@globe.com.

This story ran on page E1 of the Boston Globe on 9/8/2002.
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