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, 6 crewmembers, and the 5 hijackers – was killed instantly. In and around the Pentagon itself, 125 people died, either from the impact, the ensuing fire, or smoke inhalation.
“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 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 Services), 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 ten 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’s 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 to 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 has since 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.