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Rebuilding the Pentagon

The Pentagon Renovation Project, 1993-2011

The teardown and rebuilding of Wedge 1 continued more or less on schedule. The demolition of this segment alone removed about 28 million pounds of asbestos. In the new mezzanine area, the DiLorenzo Tricare Health Clinic opened in 2000. By September 2001, the Wedge 1 renovation was nearly complete, and the first workers in this section were making their way back in. More than half the occupants of Wedge 2 had moved out to prepare for the next phase of renovation. By the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, five days shy of the official completion of the Wedge 1 renovation, these two sections contained about half of the 9,500 people who would have been there on a normal workday.


The September 11 Attack

It was a little after 9:30 in the morning on Sept. 11, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757 airliner carrying 59 passengers and crew, slammed into the new western façade of the Pentagon, traveling 350 miles an hour and carrying 10,000 gallons of jet fuel. The hijacked jet struck the building at about a 45-degree angle, causing catastrophic damage to support columns on the first and second floors. It penetrated the three outermost (E, D, and C) rings of the Pentagon, passing from Wedge 1 into Wedge 2 as it disintegrated. The impact, explosion, and ensuing fire killed all 59 victims on the aircraft and 125 people in the Pentagon – including 29 of the 30 naval officers at work in the new Navy Command Center.
Nearly 200 Americans were killed in the Pentagon attack. Thousands of friends and family members were grieving and their lives would never be the same – but the attackers somehow had struck precisely where they would cause the least amount of damage. “This was a terrible tragedy,” Evey told reporters a few days later, “but I’m here to tell you that if we had not undertaken these efforts in the building, this could have been much, much worse.”

Probably the most important factor in the relatively low number of Pentagon casualties in the building was that so much of the affected area was unoccupied that day, due to the ongoing renovation. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times a few days after the attack, only about 800 of the 4,500 people who would normally have been working in the hardest-hit area of the building were there.
No building could have withstood the impact of such a violent crash, but the hardened features of Wedge 1 probably helped save many people who wouldn’t have survived otherwise. While the first and second floors were immediately destroyed, the third, fourth, and fifth floors remained in place, held up by steel supports, for another 30 to 40 minutes, allowing people time to evacuate. All but two of the victims in the Pentagon were on the first or second floor. What eventually caused the upper floors to collapse was the intense heat of burning jet fuel. Without the steel supports, a much larger expanse of the building probably would have fallen immediately, with a much greater loss of life. Demolition crews later found a message scrawled on a wall: “Thank you for the safety windows + reinforcement! All our people escaped!”


Part of the building renovations included replacement of old communications technology, such as the WECO switch shown here, with 100,000 new voice, video, and data drops and 16 consolidated server rooms. National Archives via Picryl

Part of the building renovations included replacement of old communications technology, such as the WECO switch shown here, with 100,000 new voice, video, and data drops and 16 consolidated server rooms. National Archives via Picryl

Images of the building exterior after the collapse showed intact windows, literally inches away from where the rest of the building had fallen. An article in ArchitectureWeek magazine the following month marveled: “So resilient was the newly strengthened section of the Pentagon that a glass display case only 40 feet from where the plane entered the building survived without a crack.” The new sprinkler system, admittedly useless in combatting a fire that was estimated to have burned hotter than 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit, cooled and protected many evacuees.

From a distance, in fact, the damage to the Pentagon seemed so slight, for a building that had just absorbed the impact of a 757 jetliner, that some 9/11 conspiracy theorists seized on images of the scene as evidence that there had been no plane crash at all: Why was the opening so small, when a 757 had a 124-foot wingspan? Why were windows intact just inches from the collapsed section?
Not all of the new features worked as expected, because nobody had ever expected an attack to take the form of a jet plane. The emergency fire doors worked flawlessly, slamming shut to seal off corridors and prevent the spread of fire, but they also temporarily trapped people who had to pry them open to escape; they were designed to funnel evacuees into nearby stairwells – but the stairwells had been destroyed in the explosion.

The 9/11 attack forced a fresh look at the existing plan for renovation. The Remote Delivery Facility was being built north of the Pentagon, severing the direct link between the building and cargo trucks, but the nearby highways, state routes 27 and 110, now seemed too close for comfort. The Metro Entrance Facility, which would move arriving buses and other passenger vehicles away from the building, was under construction adjacent to the southwest wall, but the escalator from the underground Metro station was still disgorging about 15,000 people a day into the Pentagon lobby. These and other issues would have to be addressed.

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