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The Pentagon’s Sept. 11 First Responders

The USS Arlington’s motto –Strength, Honor, Fortitude – signifies a bond between the military community and those who came to its aid on 9/11.

At 9:38 on the bright, sunny morning of Sept. 11, 2001, many people in the Washington Metropolitan Area – especially law enforcement, fire, and emergency medical services (EMS) crews – were already aware that the World Trade Center had suffered an apparent attack by terrorists who had flown passenger airliners into the North and South Towers. But the terrible news from New York City could not prepare them for the shock of seeing a Boeing 757 – American Airlines Flight 77 – flying eastward, just hundreds of feet above the ground, on a steep and rapid descent toward the nation’s capital.

Three blocks away, at the intersection of Columbia Pike and South Wayne Street, ACPD Motorcycle Officer Richard Cox looked up to see, in the polished underside of the plane’s fuselage, the reflection of the buildings over which it was passing. Both officers then heard an explosion and saw a towering plume of smoke. Foust radioed: “We just had an airplane crash.”

Arlington County Police Department (ACPD) Cpl. Barry Foust, stopped at a traffic light less than two miles west of the Pentagon, saw the aircraft through his windshield. Three blocks away, at the intersection of Columbia Pike and South Wayne Street, ACPD Motorcycle Officer Richard Cox looked up to see, in the polished underside of the plane’s fuselage, the reflection of the buildings over which it was passing. Both officers then heard an explosion and saw a towering plume of smoke. Foust radioed: “We just had an airplane crash.” Cox was able to specify the Pentagon as the site of impact.

9/11

Inured victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., are loaded onto an ambulance at the medical triage area for transport to a local hospital. DoD photo

In Arlington County Fire Department’s Engine 101, Fire Capt. Steve McCoy and his crew, traveling north on Interstate 395 for a training exercise in Crystal City, saw the plane bank sharply before disappearing over the horizon. As soon as they heard the explosion and saw the massive plume of smoke and fire, McCoy radioed the Arlington County Emergency Communications Center (ECC) and – already thinking of the World Trade Center attacks – advised that the FBI be notified of a possible terrorist attack.

A few miles to the west, on Route 267, Virginia State Trooper Mike Middleton, who had just pulled over a motorist to issue a citation, heard his colleague, Trooper Myrlin Wimbish, shouting excitedly over the radio that a plane had just crashed into the Pentagon. Wimbish had been refueling his patrol car within view of the Pentagon when Flight 77 hurtled overhead, so close that his car rocked in the turbulence of the plane’s wake. Wimbish, like many other witnesses, later observed that the plane was accelerating as it struck the building.

“We started searching the area,” he said. “At one point it looked like a big auditorium. Chunks of debris from the plane and the building were glowing red . . . It was like a nightmare. I felt like I was in hell, because the only illumination we had was from the glowing chunks of the plane.”

Middleton set out immediately for the Pentagon. When he turned south onto Route 110, he heard another tremendous explosion, followed by a roiling column of smoke. Once on scene, he ran to the huge smoking hole in the side of the building. “I yelled to a Pentagon police officer that our trooper was inside, and he pointed to an opening to the right of the impact site, and I just ran to that opening,” he recalled. “I was immediately doused with a huge wall of water, because a water line had ruptured. I remember yelling to Myrlin. I could hear his voice. I couldn’t see him, because it was pitch black and the smoke was so thick in there.”

Middleton doesn’t remember how he ended up in the vast, hollowed-out area of destruction where the plane had struck the Pentagon. He remembers directing three military personnel, who were stumbling down the hallway, toward the glow of Wimbish’s flashlight. “We started searching the area,” he said. “At one point it looked like a big auditorium. Chunks of debris from the plane and the building were glowing red . . . It was like a nightmare. I felt like I was in hell, because the only illumination we had was from the glowing chunks of the plane.”

9/11

Standing before a burned-out hulk of an automobile, an Alexandria, Va., fireman inspects the damage to the Pentagon after a hijacked Boeing 757, American Airlines Flight 77, was deliberately crashed into the building, Sept. 11, 2001. The Pentagon attack followed an attack on the twin towers of the New York World Trade Center, where two fully loaded passenger airliners were flown into the buildings in what has been called the worst terrorist attack in history. DoD photo

Nevertheless, Middleton saw horrors enough to convince him there were no survivors at the immediate crash site. He and Wimbish accompanied a Pentagon police officer and a renovation contractor to a second-floor corridor, which was also choked with smoke. The men broke in doors and looked for people until the heat was too intense for them to continue further – at the end of the hallway, Middleton recalled, in the direction of the crash site, “something was glowing red.” The men checked the third floor, and then the fourth, where they encountered fire and rescue personnel who told them to leave the building.

Middleton saw horrors enough to convince him there were no survivors at the immediate crash site.

“That’s when I realized I was having trouble breathing,” Middleton said, “because I wasn’t covering my face. I was just full of fear and adrenalin. When we started coming down, I started feeling dizzy. There was another explosion, and I remember a guy grabbed me and said, ‘Run!’ And then we were on adrenalin again, and I just remember going from intense heat to – it felt freezing cold outside. And that’s when I blacked out.”

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...