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U.S. Army Center of Military History

"Then Came The Fire"

Personal accounts from the Pentagon, 11 September 2001

The horrific events of 11 September 2001 are seared into the memories of all Americans and many others around the world. The fall of the Twin Towers in New York, the attack on the Pentagon, the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in a field in Pennsylvania, and the thousands of dead claimed by the actions of a handful of Islamic-inspired terrorists will not soon be forgotten.

Out of the fires and rubble of those events have come a number of personal accounts that depict the initial shock of the attacks, the confusion and heroism of the first responders, the struggles of the survivors, and the outpouring of grief and support of those who could only watch.

This publication from the U.S. Army Center of Military History brings some of those stories about the attack on the Pentagon to life. Stephen J. Lofgren, general editor of this collection, and a team of oral historians conducted hundreds of interviews with witnesses, first responders, and survivors of the Pentagon in the days immediately following the event.

The anthology consists of excerpts from the accounts of sixty-one people, both oral interview and written, who were involved in the attack, and it provides their stories and perspectives on that day.

The range of personal experiences is broad. It includes individuals who watched the plane strike the building, Pentagon occupants-some of whom were badly injured-who sought to escape the burning area, and bystanders and other Pentagon personnel who sought to help and rescue colleagues, as well as people involved in the response and recovery efforts.

This book, prepared for the tenth anniversary of the attacks, is an important compilation of personal recountings of the Pentagon on 11 September that will serve to remind future generations of the tragedy and the acts of valor on that day.


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American Military History: Volume II

Chapter 14: Excerpt

September 11, 2001, started out as a beautiful day across most of the eastern United States. Blue skies and pleasant temperatures carried the hint of fall even as summer lingered. At 8:46 A.M. American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the 96th floor of the 110-story North Tower of New York's World Trade Center, spewing out 20,000 gallons of aviation fuel that ignited in a firebomb nearly 2,000°F. As horrified Americans watched the unfolding tragedy on television, United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into the twin South Tower sixteen minutes later, creating yet another inferno on its 80th floor. Firefighters and police rushed to the rescue of what might have been upward of 50,000 employees later in the day. Soon hundreds and then thousands were streaming away from the doomed buildings and their neighbors. The 110,000 tons of steel, concrete, and impedimenta above the point of impact on the South Tower proved too much to bear by 9:59, and it collapsed from 110 stories to 150 feet of rubble. Within thirty minutes the North Tower collapsed as well.

At the Pentagon, crisis action teams were just standing up to deal with the emerging catastrophe when American Airlines Flight 77 roared into the western face of that squat building at 9:38 with somewhat less effect because of the Pentagon's formidable construction. Over the next several hours details would emerge of yet another plane, United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed under mysterious circumstances into a field in Pennsylvania. A total of 2,435 workers, 343 firemen, and 23 policemen died in the Twin Towers and another 125 employees and servicemen in the Pentagon.Well before details became clear, Americans surmised that they had been attacked by a clever and ruthless adversary. A chilling story emerged: In a well-organized scheme each plane had been seized by a team of five (in one case four) terrorists armed with plastic weapons and purporting to be passengers. These imposters had overwhelmed the crews, substituted one of their own for each pilot, and flown into their chosen targets. The exception was United Airlines Flight 93. The passengers on this somewhat later flight had learned by cellular phones of the fate of earlier hijacked aircraft. Popular conjecture holds that some passengers attempted to regain control. In the resulting tumult, the plane crashed headlong into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The 33 passengers, 7 crewmembers, and 4 highjackers died together, but the unknown target was spared. Americans had their first heroes, and martyrs, in what President George W. Bush would soon label the Global War on Terrorism. They also had a new date that would live in infamy: "9-11."

Homeland Security

The Army was heavily involved from the beginning of the crisis. Time-honored tradition looks upon the Army National Guard as heir to the militia for state governors under duress. When New York Governor George Pataki declared a state of emergency, Adjutant General Thomas P. Maguire ordered 8,000 guardsmen to report for state active duty. New York Guard soldiers had already been gathering in their armories. By the evening of September 11, 1,500 were already at Ground Zero, as the World Trade Center catastrophe site came to be called; the rest were en route to duty stations.

The initial role of these National Guardsmen is best described as military support to civilian authority. They quickly reinforced the hard-pressed New York City Police with respect to traffic control and security; their uniforms and disciplined demeanor had a calming presence on the public. As equipment arrived, guardsmen provided civil engineering support, assisted with debris tagging and removal, established shelter and lodging, coordinated transportation, and facilitated logistical support. Over time they picked up such additional taskings as escorting official visitors, managing relief donations, moving mail, checking credentials, facilitating stress management, providing medical support, and serving as honor guards for memorial services. The guardsmen's special mix of military and civilian skills, complemented by organization and discipline, make them an invaluable asset for local authorities facing an emergency.

Ground Zero

Ground Zero symbolizes the 9-11 terrorist attacks, as the USS Arizona had the attack on Pearl Harbor nearly sixty years before.

At the Pentagon site, the involvement of soldiers was even more immediate, since so many were either victims or impromptu first responders. Many heroically rescued comrades from smoke and flame or unearthed them from the debris. Firemen, paramedics, police, and rescue personnel from the surrounding communities began arriving within minutes; soon patches of open ground west of the Pentagon organized into a relatively orderly array of triage and treatment areas, emergency medical response staging areas, and an air evacuation site. No one present had expected to see such carnage at the Pentagon, but many had worked through carnage at other times and places. Casualties were evacuated, survival assistance officers appointed, families notified, and about a tenth of the building sealed off as unusable and under investigation as a crime scene. Symbolizing the resilience of the American people, the following day soldiers from the Military District of Washington draped their huge garrison flag, an outsized American flag measuring twenty by forty feet, beside the gaping wound; the rest of the building went on with the business of national defense. There would be tearful memorial services to come but no pause in the war others had started.

Two days after the attack on the Pentagon

Two days after the attack on the Pentagon, investigators take a break. Inside, search and rescue efforts continue.

Military support to civilian authority has been but one Army role historically associated with homeland security. Others have included rear-area security, border security, civil defense, controlling domestic disturbances, internment, humanitarian relief, and economic intervention (seizing factories). The immediate reaction after the September 11 attacks was to reinforce local authorities in relief and security, but broader responses soon emerged. During World War II the entire continental United States had been treated as a combatant rear area wherein 16,007 factories and other strategic sites were secured by their own employees assisted by 200,000 auxiliary military policemen and 160,000 state guardsmen. In 2001's new war, civilian airports seemed the most vulnerable facilities; and 6,000 guardsmen under state control fanned out to assist in securing 444 of them in fifty-four states and territories. Another 3,000 guardsmen under state control assisted in securing waterways, harbors, nuclear power plants, dams, power generator facilities, tunnels, bridges, and rail stations. This was no small task, since the Corps of Engineers alone manages 12,000 miles of commercial waterways, 925 harbors, and 276 locks. An additional 14,000 from the reserve components were mobilized to assist in securing facilities and installations on federal property. Some of these manpower commitments diminished over time, as when the Transportation Security Administration assumed responsibility for the airports.

Some homeland security taskings were episodic. In 2002 the Army assisted in securing the Super Bowl, the Winter Olympics, the Winter Paralympics, meetings of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, and the World Economic Forum. The Olympics alone required the services of 5,000 guardsmen.

Border security had not been a military responsibility for most of the twentieth century, but the war on drugs had reintroduced the military to assisting in that role. In 1989 Congress designated the Department of Defense (DOD) as the lead agency for detecting the air and maritime transit of illegal drugs. Shortly afterward, it stood up Joint Task Force 6 (JTF–6) in Texas to assist with aerial reconnaissance, border surveillance, dive operations, intelligence analysis, construction, transportation, communications, canine support, and other types of support wherein military skills would be useful. JTF–6 had been a small headquarters with the manpower equivalent of two or three battalions customarily attached. After 9-11 national attention to border security radically increased and broadened beyond the emphasis on drugs. Over 1,500 more soldiers deployed to assist the U.S. Border Patrol, the U.S. Customs Service, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 did limit their role to indirect, nevertheless valuable, support.

The greatest single fear the terrorists inspired was that they would somehow acquire weapons of mass destruction—chemical, biological, or nuclear—and unleash them against the citizens of the United States. President Bush's administration had already reenergized investments in ballistic missile defense. The systems under design were oriented against missile launches from rogue states, however. What if nonstate terrorists smuggled a weapon of mass destruction into the country undetected? The Army had been responsible for elaborate civil defense efforts throughout much of the Cold War, though emphasis had waned after the Antiballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union in 1972.

By the late 1990s fanatical terrorists rather than calculating Soviets seemed the more plausible threat, and the Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 1997 established the Domestic Preparedness Training Initiative within the Department of Defense. This envisioned soldiers training local law enforcement authorities in preparation for chemical, biological, or nuclear attack and offering other assistance with respect to such possible events as appropriate. Mass casualty exercises involving soldiers, police, firefighters, medical personnel, and other first responders with scores of volunteers playing victims became a common sight in towns and cities around the United States. Not all the support was for training alone; the Army Reserves' 310th Chemical Company provided biological integrated detection system (BIDS) early warning at the 2002 Winter Olympics, for example.

The Army's homeland security responsibilities after 9-11 were superimposed on a continuing expectation that soldiers would remain available to assist their fellow citizens in cases of natural disaster. The National Guard in particular provides state and local governments readily available, disciplined manpower with inherent command, control, transportation, and support. Specialized skills and equipment for engineering, debris removal, water purification, messing, and medical support can be particularly useful when any form of disaster strikes. There is ample precedent for the Army's fielding as many as 30,000 soldiers at a time nationwide for humanitarian relief.

National Guardsmen augment security

In the wake of 9-11, National Guardsmen augment security at airports across the United States.

The post–9-11 period was no exception to this recurrent yet unpredictable aspect of homeland security.

A few homeland security tasks that had historically come the way of the Army were not features of the Army's post–9-11 environment. The Army was not asked to intern enemy aliens. No specific nation was identified as enemy, and individuals suspected of terrorism or violations of immigration policies were few enough in number to render Army involvement unnecessary. There were no domestic disturbances associated with the disaster: the American people seemed more united than ever. There was no expectation of economic intervention or reconstruction on the part of the Army, with the exception of the Pentagon. Here, the Corps of Engineers took charge of a challenging project to rebuild and restore the shattered section of the building within a year of the attack. They met this timeline, and the newly rebuilt portions of the Pentagon reopened with ceremony and fanfare—and with the same large garrison flag hanging alongside the restored facade.

It had been some time since Americans had been attacked on their own soil, so there was understandable confusion with respect to who was in charge of what. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) had supervised defense against aerospace strategic weapons, while the Army had been the DOD Executive Agent for military support to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Shortly after the 9-11 attacks Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld reiterated and refined these arrangements, making the Joint Forces Command responsible for the land and maritime defense of the continental United States and appointing the Secretary of the Army the DOD Executive Agent for Homeland Security, including homeland security and military support to civilian authority. Homeland security implied the direct application of military forces with DOD as the federal government's lead agency, whereas military support to civilian authority encompassed supporting the lead of local officials or other federal agencies. These arrangements proved satisfactory for the time being. In due course, President Bush proposed and Congress approved the reorganization of many different federal agencies involved in homeland security into a single overarching Department of Homeland Security. As this book is written, the Department of Defense is still working out its relationships with this new agency.

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