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.
Arlington County Police Department (ACPD) Cpl. Barry Foust, stopped at a traffic light less than 2 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.
In Arlington County Fire Department’s (ACFD) 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 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.
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.”
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.
“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 adrenaline. 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 adrenaline again, and I just remember going from intense heat to – it felt freezing cold outside. And that’s when I blacked out.”
For Middleton – who would wake up four days later in a hospital bed, having barely survived first- and second-degree burns to his trachea and lungs – the day was over. But for everyone in the region’s law enforcement, fire, and EMS communities, a long ordeal was just beginning.
When Flight 77 slammed into the southwestern façade of the Pentagon at about 400 miles per hour, the destruction it caused was immediate and calamitous. With its full load of jet fuel, it weighed about 270,000 pounds, the equivalent of a diesel locomotive. The aircraft’s forward section disintegrated on impact, but the middle and tail sections penetrated three of the Pentagon’s five concentric rings – 310 feet beyond the building’s facade. Everyone on the plane – 53 passengers, six crewmembers, and the five hijackers – was killed instantly. In and around the Pentagon itself, 125 people died, either from the impact, the ensuing fire, or smoke inhalation
Fire Capt. Dennis Gilroy and his crew, Foam 161 of the Fort Myer Fire Department, were already on station at the Pentagon – adjacent to the heliport on the lawn, near the site of impact – when the aircraft slammed into the building. Their truck was disabled by the blast, but Gilroy and his crew, despite suffering injuries and burns of their own, began helping victims out of the Pentagon’s first-floor windows.
In the early stages of the Pentagon fire, water would be useless against – and could even increase the danger of – a fire fueled by about 36,000 pounds of jet fuel. Fortunately, two aircraft rescue firefighter (ARFF) crews from nearby Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport promptly set up their apparatus directly in front of the gaping hole in the Pentagon. Trained in fighting jet fuel fires with chemical foam, these units knocked down the bulk of the initial fire within minutes, enabling personnel to evacuate the building quickly and safely. “God bless them,” said Richard Keevill, who was Arlington’s area commander for the Virginia State Police, and who had seen, through the window of his office across the street from the Pentagon, Flight 77 approaching. “They probably saved a lot of people’s lives.” All the evacuees who made it out of the Pentagon that day, except for one, survived.
The foam units were part of a substantial contingent sent by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) Fire Department. Within minutes, help had arrived or was on its way from all over the area: fire and medical units from several Arlington County stations, the District of Columbia, and the county’s mutual-aid partners, including the city of Alexandria and Fairfax County.
Arlington County’s law enforcement personnel also converged on the Pentagon. ACPD Lt. Robert Medairos, after consulting with the Pentagon police (then known as the Defense Protective Service), assumed responsibility for securing the outer perimeter of the Pentagon, directing officers to 27 nearby intersections. Less than 90 minutes after the attack, more than 100 law enforcement personnel – from the ACPD, Arlington County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO), Fairfax County Police, Alexandria Police, Arlington County Park Rangers, and Immigration and Naturalization Service – had reported to the staging area. The Virginia State Police took complete responsibility for manning all the exit ramps from I-395. Deputy Chief Stephen Holl ultimately took charge of the ACPD response.
ACFD’s assistant chief for operations, James Schwartz, arrived at the Pentagon about 10 minutes after the plane’s impact and assumed the job of incident commander, first focusing on gaining tactical control of fire suppression, rescue, and EMS. It was a job unlike any he’d ever faced before – though it was also a task that, given the strategic leadership of Arlington Fire Chief Ed Plaugher, he was in a unique position to fulfill: Schwartz had overseen joint exercises with the Defense Department, the FBI, and other urban fire departments proficient in terrorism and mass-casualty events.
One of Schwartz’s first moves was to assign ACFD Battalion Chief Bob Cornwell, a 35-year veteran who knew the Pentagon better than anyone in the department, command of several companies in initiating the search and rescue mission. As the day progressed, Schwartz established a tiered command structure: The firefight was conducted by two different divisions from both the outside and the inner ring of the Pentagon, and an EMS division handled medical activities that became centered in the building’s south parking area.
These efforts were frustrated by intervening circumstances – by the collapse of the damaged section of the Pentagon at 10:10 a.m.; by a recent building renovation that had introduced new features, including blast-proof windows and automatic fire-protection doors, that blocked or slowed firefighters’ access; and then by a series of confusing evacuation orders, prompted by the approach of unknown aircraft, that stopped any progress in its tracks.
“The first couple of hours,” recalled Keevill, “were a mess. On the public safety side, it was organized chaos. A lot of the military people who ran out – because that was the right thing to do – turned around and went back in to get their colleagues. But the fire was so intense, and there was so much heat, that there were limited things they could do.” Fire and rescue crews would later report finding more than one victim who, judging from the circumstances and the position in which their bodies were found, seemed likely to have been running into the building, rather than away from it.
To this day, Schwartz – who later succeeded Ed Plaugher as Arlington’s fire chief – considers the Pentagon’s civilian and military employees the “real heroes of that day, because without the necessary training and equipment – with nothing greater than a sense of loyalty and duty to their country and their comrades – many of those people put their lives at risk, and I would argue in a few cases even lost their lives, trying to help their colleagues in the building.” Nevertheless, after the collapse of the damaged section, most Pentagon personnel agreed to abide by a cordon established across the front of the building. By midday, Schwartz’s incident command was beginning to establish control over the various elements of the massive response.
A Supporting Role
The surviving victims of the Pentagon attack encountered abundant EMS resources – the immediate availability of military doctors, nurses, and first aid responders ensured the prompt and orderly initiation of triage and medical care delivery, and the capabilities assembled at the site within the first few hours proved more than was necessary. The main reason for this, as Schwartz pointed out, was that about half the stricken area was just completing the first phase of a building renovation, a complete overhaul that kept the section – which on a normal day might have contained thousands of people – virtually unoccupied. Notable exceptions included the second-floor Office of the U.S. Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel (DCSPER), the Army’s first-floor Resource Services-Washington (RSW) Office, and the newly opened Navy Command Center, which occupied more than a third of an acre in the Pentagon’s D and C rings. These areas suffered heavy casualties on Sept. 11. By early afternoon, 106 surviving victims requiring treatment had been transported to hospitals and other medical facilities; 57 were treated and released, while 49 were admitted for further treatment.
Despite the unprecedented circumstances of the main fire, crews managed to extinguish the damaged impact area during the daylight hours of Sept. 11. A troublesome roof fire, consuming the timber framing and old horsehair insulation beneath the slate and concrete decking of the Pentagon’s peaked roof, smoldered through the night, threatening to spread to other sections of the building, before it was finally isolated and extinguished. “It proved very difficult to control,” Schwartz said. “The firefighters literally had to break up that slate and get hose streams up under there. The first 24 hours were very intensive in terms of firefighting, managing victims, and providing medical care.”
As conditions on the ground began to improve – as firefighters continued to knock down spot fires and engineers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency shored up the damaged sections and made them safe to enter – the primary objective of response began to shift toward safely dismantling the damaged parts of the building. Rescue technicians inevitably came across evidence – human remains or aircraft parts or, eventually, the plane’s flight data recorder – that had to be catalogued. The process was meticulous and often tedious, with the entire area electronically mapped and each item of evidence logged according to its GPS coordinates.
Leaders of the response operations had decided that all victim remains would be treated with the utmost respect. “We weren’t going to try and distinguish between civilian and military in that kind of an environment,” Schwartz said. “We would process those remains and the military would then convey those out of the building with the highest military honors. Everything – the entire incident team – would come to a stop. People would come to attention while the remains were taken out of the building and removed to a temporary morgue that was on the scene. And then we would go back to work until the next piece of evidence was found.”
Eventually, the primary emphasis of operations at the Pentagon became the criminal investigation, at which point the FBI took over incident command, and area law enforcement personnel took on supporting roles. ACPD Capt. Kevin Reardon, who was then a lieutenant in the narcotics division, describes this phase of the operation as the most dramatic for law enforcement personnel. “Policemen went in with the FBI and photographed each location, each body, each body part, and then recovered it and got it to the morgue. That went on for weeks. We had a couple officers who had to take disability time off after that, to recover their mental health.”
In the latter phase of evidence collection, investigators combed through the tons of rubble, spread out with loaders over the Pentagon’s north parking area, and found the evidence that told them who the hijackers were, how they got on the plane, and how they took control of Flight 77.
A Fellowship of Public Servants
The response to the Pentagon attack involved the coordination of resources from all over the greater Washington, D.C., area – and not just from fire, EMS, and law enforcement personnel. Ron Carlee, who was Arlington’s county manager on 9/11 – and whose initials have since been welded into the keel of the USS Arlington – pointed out that every single agency in the Arlington County government had a role.
It was the Parks and Recreation Department, Carlee said, who set up the 2,000 feet of fencing that established a security perimeter around the heliport lawn. One of the key figures in the response turned out to be Larry Callan, the Arlington County Public Schools electrician, who managed to string lights through the dense smoke and illuminate the area for firefighters. When volunteers and contractors arrived to provide food service for the first responders, said Carlee, “We deployed our restaurant inspectors to inspect all of the food preparation and service. Our library personnel set up a 24-hour hotline and provided information services to people with questions about what was going on, and helped construct our proactive communication to keep people updated externally. Our public works guys handled trash collection, serviced all the vehicles, and did fuel deliveries for small equipment. We used every single one of our assets.”
Throughout the operations, recalled Holl, responders were overwhelmed with the support of ordinary citizens from around the area. Across from the Pentagon, on a grassy slope near where the Air Force Memorial now stands, civilians began to congregate soon after the attacks, some of them family members of the victims. “That’s where the makeshift memorial started, where people started bringing flowers and candles and posters, where they wrote some really very touching things,” said Holl, who is currently chief of the MWAA police force. “One day I decided I needed a break, and so I had somebody drive me up there. I walked through the crowd, and I said to them: ‘Hey, thanks for being here. The first responders can see you all up here, and it’s really heartening to know you all are behind us.’ I asked a couple of them: ‘Why are you here?’ And they just said, ‘I had to be near the site. I had to be a part of it.’”
Middleton, who nearly died after running into the burning building – the heat of the inferno melted his metal name plate, and he still wears the badge blackened by the scorch marks received on that day – returned to work on Nov. 1, 2001. “The daily daunting tasks of recovering bodies, collecting the debris of the plane – I was not involved in any of that,” he said. “Some of my friends, who were, talked about working 17- and 20-hour days, getting two hours of sleep, and then getting up and going right back to do it all over again.”
“Looking back,” said Keevill, who later became chief of the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, “I saw the very worst things I had seen in my career as a police officer – and the very best. It was horrendous to see it and be a part of the first response, but it was also, in my very humble view, a privilege to be part of it, because typically our military is protecting us, and as civilian law enforcement and public safety officers, we were in a position to help protect them.”
After the conclusion of every 24-week training course, Arlington County Fire recruits are taken to the Pentagon’s 9/11 Memorial, on the southwest lawn of the building, where they are told the story of that day. “We ask them to remember what we’re telling them,” Schwartz said, “and to carry forward the sacrifices that were made – if not in exactly the same way, at least in the spirit of what the fire service represents to communities, how we stepped up with our partners and acted in a way that served others.”
The U.S. Navy landing platform docks – USS New York, USS Arlington, and USS Somerset, honor those who served and died on 9/11. Every firehouse in Arlington County – Schwartz, who was the keynote speaker at the USS Arlington’s christening ceremony on March 26, 2011, has seen to it – bears a framed copy of the USS Arlington’s seal, whose symbols evoke the significance of what happened at the Pentagon, both to the victims of the attacks and to the first responders from law enforcement, fire and rescue, and EMS.
“I wanted to remind my own organization that as the USS Arlington sails in defense of our nation,” said Schwartz. “There is a direct connection: The ship was named as a result of the events on 9/11. I never want my organization to forget the horrific human tragedy and the loss that those 184 families suffered.”
“These military guys expect it, day in and day out,” Middleton said, “and they get no recognition for what they do. I tell people: ‘Look, my ordeal lasted 25 minutes that day. And these guys not only picked up the pieces – they went to war to help protect us.’ I want to express my gratitude and appreciation for what they do.”