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What follows is the account of a Marine Corps Officer who witnessed the attack on the Pentagon and the immediate aftermath.
So, while fresh, here are my memories of that fateful day.
I had just reached the elevator in the 5th Wing of BMDO/Federal Office Building (FOB) #2 - call it approximately 9:36 AM. I was already trying to make some sense out of the World Trade Tower attacks having heard about them on the radio. The news was sketchy, but the fact that it was a terrorist attack was already known. I then realized that I was wearing sunglasses and needed to go back to Lot 3 to retrieve my clear lenses. Since it was by no means a short walk to my car, I was upset with myself for being so distracted. Approximately 10 steps out from between Wings 4 and 5, I was making a gentle right turn towards the security check-in building just above Wing 4 when I became aware of something unusual. I can't remember exactly what I was thinking about at that mo-ment, but I started to hear an increasingly loud rumbling behind me and to my left. As I turned to my left, I immediately realized the noise was bouncing off the 4-story structure that was Wing 5. One to two seconds later the airliner came into my field of view. By that time the noise was absolutely deafening. I instantly had a very bad feeling about this but things were happening very quickly. The aircraft was essentially right over the top of me and the outer portion of the FOB (flight path parallel the outer edge of the FOB). Everything was shaking and vibrating, including the ground. I estimate that the aircraft was no more than 100 feet above me (30 to 50 feet above the FOB) in a slight nose down atti-tude. The plane had a silver body with red and blue stripes down the fuselage. I believed at the time that it belonged to American Airlines, but I couldn't be sure. It looked like a 737 and I so reported to authorities.
Within seconds the plane cleared the 8th Wing of BMDO and was heading directly towards the Pentagon. Engines were at a steady high-pitched whine, indicating to me that the throttles were steady and full. I estimated the aircraft speed at between 350 and 400 knots. The flight path appeared to be deliberate, smooth, and controlled. As the aircraft approached the Pentagon, I saw a minor flash (later found out that the aircraft had sheared off a portion of a highway light pole down on Hwy 110). As the aircraft flew ever lower I started to lose sight of the actual airframe as a row of trees to the Northeast of the FOB blocked my view. I could now only see the tail of the aircraft. I believe I saw the tail dip slightly to the right indicating a minor turn in that direction. The tail was barely visible when I saw the flash and subsequent fireball rise approximately 200 feet above the Pentagon. There was a large explosion noise and the low frequency sound echo that comes with this type of sound. Associated with that was the increase in air pressure, momentarily, like a small gust of wind. For those formerly in the military, it sounded like a 2000lb bomb going off roughly ½ mile in front of you. At once there was a huge cloud of black smoke that rose several hundred feet up. Elapsed time from hear-ing the initial noise to when I saw the impact flash was between 12 and 15 seconds.
Many of the FOB people had been looking at the news reports flowing out of the attack on the World Trade Center Towers, going about their normal work routine as they watched. Maybe half or a bit more already knew of the New York attacks. However, within seconds of the impact -- less than a minute after the FOB flyover -- several thou-sand people started exiting the FOB. People poured through the vehicle security check-point, crossing Columbia Pike into the FOB parking lot. As people were leaving the building in a very rapid manner, emergency vehicles, police, fire engines and ambulances were racing to the scene. They began arriving within 3 to 5 minutes of the impact. Sev-eral military officers were standing in the middle of Columbia Pike, essentially directing traffic and holding the pedestrians back so that emergency vehicles could get through. The looks on their faces were somewhere between shock, terror, horror, and confusion. Many were crying. Many were stunned. Some were yelling to clear the area, move away from the buildings. Concern was that we might be the next target. Some were indicating that people should go home, but most just stared in silence at the burning West Wing of the Pentagon. Some cars were leaving the compound as well as the parking lot, but very few. Many tried to make phone calls to family or to home offices to say they were safe, but within minutes of the attack the sheer volume of traffic clobbered cell phones and other lines of communication. Those that got through needed patience and persistence. As groups of friends and co-workers gathered to look on, immediate declarations of anger, frustration, dismay came out. We stood in the parking lot for approximately 15 minutes when a call came out for help. What must have been a hundred people moved in the direction of the Pentagon together and without hesitation. I saw Vicki Aardema, Chris Avvisato, John Schessler, and former SPARTAN Jen Metzler all walking down to the scene. As we got closer and crossed over the now empty roads, the devastation could be seen through the smoke and flames. It was just unbelievable. The police started to turn people away from the site. FBI agents were already there and had declared the whole area a crime scene. Declaring a crime scene prevents people from getting in that are not police, fire or medical type personnel. I was allowed to proceed because I witnessed the event. Ultimately, I believe that only Jen Metzler and myself made it to the scene, but I didn't run into her for the rest of the day.
After I shared a couple of things that I had seen to a local law enforcement official -- what I will call a perimeter policeman -- he hustled me off to an FBI agent named Mike. He took what I would call a Ā statement, then told me to go to the Command Post (CP) and wait. Someone else would want to discuss what I saw. At that point I met a young African American who was standing next to Mike, the FBI agent. He had streaks of blood on his T-shirt and was wearing bandages on both arms. Apparently he had been standing in the Control Tower for the Helo Pad that was approximately 200 feet to the North of the actual impact point. He still looked as though he was in shock, but indicated that he had witnessed the impact. I then confirmed that the aircraft had been flown di-rectly into the Pentagon without hitting the ground first or skipping into the building. As he and I were walking in the direction of the CP, medical supplies started to arrive. A van pulled up and they asked for volunteers to unload. Items in the van seemed to have been loaded very hurriedly: individual packs of 4x4 gauze, irrigation fluid, IV and oxy-gen equipment, wooden stretchers. Medical folks were trying to get a handle on it. Get the stuff out and get it organized. Nurses were cracking the organizational whip: IV stuff here, fluid there, get those litters out of the way. About that time, we got the first of 4 or 5 calls to take cover. Reports had been received of other aircraft coming in for what could be a subsequent attack. At about the same time the upper floors on the Pentagon caved in and collapsed. I didn't see it, but many in the crowd acknowledged the event.
We picked up the supplies and moved them under a concrete overpass with a small tunnel of about 100 feet or so of coverage. I saw a couple of injured folks, but they appeared to be in good hands - injuries did not seem from a distance to be life threaten-ing. After a couple of the follow-on attack scares, many of us were formed up into 4-man stretcher teams. Approximately 30 teams were formed. We were moved up to the scene and given rubber gloves. We were taken in several directions, but finally landed about 300 feet west of the Helo Pad out on Hwy 110. They had set up the medical people under the trees, putting the three levels of care in a line. Dead and dying were on the North end, triage and serious in the middle, walking wounded on the South end. Doctors, Nurses, Paramedics, Flight Surgeons, EMT's - every brand of medical professional - were eve-rywhere. Hwy 110 became a staging point for ambulances, and police vehicles. Fire trucks had already been moved into position to fight the fires that were proceeding to the left, right, and into the center of the Pentagon. Every time we moved up to try and take people out, the fires would flare-up making it impossible to put non-professionals with no equipment into the building. That said, there were not enough fireman to simultaneously fight the fire and do stretcher duty, so they asked us to hang tight.
After about three hours, the officials started to become concerned about the volunteers. It was hot and most of us had been standing or working in the sun for the entire time. That's when an unbelievable amount of supplies started to show up. Gallon water jugs, bottled water, Gatorade, soda, snacks -- you name it and it was there. The volunteers started to unload and stage the supplies. Several of us started to build a forward water station for the fireman. Only a few of the bottles were cold, so ice was being brought in to help that situation. We used cardboard boxes to hold the drinks and the ice as best we could, there being no large coolers available. Three of us started carrying the cold water bottles and snacks down to the firefighters that were staged in small teams. We were actually inside the crime scene area (because of all the pieces of the aircraft and building lying on the ground). The firemen were appreciative, as the heat inside the building generated from the 8,500 gallons of jet fuel was, in their words, "unbelievable." It was reported that at least three of the fireman had to be given IV fluids due to the extreme heat. After about 20 minutes a local policeman came over and made us vacate the water station (inside the crime scene designated area) because it was obvious that we weren't law enforcement.
For the next three hours we waited to be called up to help bring people out. At about 3PM, we were formed into 12 man teams, reissued gloves and masks, and briefed by authorities on how to the job. At this point, we were going to enter the Pentagon, but not too far. Because the fire was still burning the structure was not safe for deeper penetration by non-professionals. The idea was that the fireman would bring the bodies to us and we would carry them out. Within 15 minutes of that briefing, a 3-Star Army Lt Gen-eral gathered us up. He announced that the Old Guard from Ft Meyers was being brought in to replace us within 3 hours. The 12 man litter teams continued to wait in place until the Old Guard arrived.
The mood was somber and filled with frustration, anger, and shock. People wanted to get inside to help those injured or trapped. Those immediately outside the Pentagon were not being told of the scene inside, so there was some perceived jerking around going on. It wasn't until later that it all fell into place. In the moments where the action slowed, discussions revolved around who was where, what they were doing, and what they saw. I heard a lot of questions: Who was in the office spaces? How many people on the aircraft? What type of plane? Was it an airliner? Do we know or have any word on the dead or injured? How did the aircraft hit? Did it fly in or did it hit the ground first? A thousand more.
I met some real Americans that day. The following are just a few of the people that I met and short stories about them. No last names:
Chris: He was one of my many litter partners. A young Army SSgt who is the Chef for the Army Chief of Staff. At one point, when we didn't have masks to wear, he took off his T-shirt and proceeded to tear it up so we could be a little safer.
Christina: She works in Air Force Intel. She was my water station partner. Energetic, just wanted to be a part of the solution. Carried full boxes of water and ice, as well as snacks to the fireman. She also jumped in to organize the snacks so the fireman and the medical people could find what they wanted.
Larry: Air Force 2 Star General. Was the senior officer present on the scene for the Air Force. Larry was coordinating people counts and Air Force volunteer actions on the ground. He was taking several reports and discussing what people had seen and heard. For most of the day, he stood with most of us as a litter team member. Later that evening, I gave him a ride home since the Metro was not stopping at the Pentagon.
The Marine Colonel: As we were standing there in the hot sun, a Marine Colonel had stepped into line to serve as a litter team member. He was wearing Alpha's with a bar-racks cover. That means he was dressed up in the green coat with all of his decorations. As he stepped into line, he very carefully took off his coat and cover (hat) and laid it on the concrete median there on Hwy 110. He then took off his tie and rolled up his sleeves. The entire time I was around him, off and on, I didn't hear him speak a word. Other young Marine Officers were standing around him, giving him reports on what they knew and had heard. The thing that struck me the most was the look on his face. "Resolve" is the word that comes to mind. Calm, Focused Resolve.
Ken: A retired Army Officer who is now serving as part of the Army Personnel Office. He was knocked to the floor in the impact/explosion. The smoke was so thick he had to crawl a ways in his escape. His section was the most heavily hit. He lost several friends and co-workers. Ken was there the entire day, despite his own ordeal. I also dropped him off at his car that night.
Reggy: He is an Army Major. He was my partner for going into the Pentagon. One goes down, your partner brings you out. I fear he had the worse end of that deal.
Sgt Maj: From the Army, he was coordinating the 12 man litter teams. When he got to me, he said, "Sir, are you sure you're up to this." I told him I was and gave him a quick "Arugha." He smiled and we pressed on.
1 Army 2 Star and 1 Army 1 Star: In our 3rd or 4th run for cover due to possible follow on attacks, my Company picked up the bill for a couple of minutes on my cell phone. These gents had not yet got local phone calls out to their wives yet to let them know they were alive. There were also a couple of more calls for them to report to the ops centers. It turned out that the 1 Star was the son of a Four Star Army General that I had served with in Korea in 1985 and 1986.
3 Star Army General: Grayed hair gentleman that would have qualified as a southern gentleman by the way he carried himself. He spoke in a forceful, clear, and compassion-ate manner. He appeared to be the on-scene commander. He moved about taking reports and apparently directing the military and volunteer actions there on scene. His last words to us after announcing that the Old Guard would relieve us were, "thank you all for being here, and God Bless each of you."
There were 3 Flag Rank Officers, several O-6's from all the services, and a multitude of others (civilians, contractors, and others) that made up the volunteer ranks. No one argued, everyone did whatever was asked without a second thought. There must have been 30 Chaplains and men of the cloth (not just military) there. Every now and then one would be called up for help, but they too were put into a group so they could respond to the individuals or bodies being brought out. In addition to that, I saw several mingling with the entire team, medical, volunteers, and others, ministering to the pain and shock that was there. Civilian nurses, paramedics, and other medical personnel showed up with logos from several of the local hospitals. Some of the woman nurses were older, but you should have seen how they got up and over the concrete Highway barriers with full dresses and skirts on, sometimes on their own, sometimes with assistance. Teamwork was everywhere.
I'm not sure how to end this, because there is no ending yet. I don't have any patriotic sound bite, just a deep love for our country. Only now am I beginning to fully realize what I saw and experienced. Words like "surreal," "shock," "disbelief," "frustration," and "anger" come to mind, but I don't yet have a dominant, overwhelming feeling. Like many of you, my anger quotient is heading to overload. I don't know or understand the lesson that we were supposed to have learned. I'm not sure I'll ever understand.
Closer to home (Fredericksburg), we lost two, one female government employee who is a neighbor and another father who worked in the Pentagon. His daughter goes to school with my sons Mike and Sean. That said, I know that as horrible as it was at the Pentagon that it does not come close to the magnitude of horror, destruction, and death that was experienced in New York. Regarding Pennslyvannia, I can only say as a former Marine Aviator, who served on a couple of accident boards, aircraft accidents are never good, but thank God for their heroism.
I still have more questions than answers. I love that our country has come together. I'm sorry that it took this to do it. Thanks to all of you who contributed your sweat on that day, to all of you who gave blood, to all who responded to relief drives, to all those who called us in Washington to ask after our welfare. Thanks for caring. Hug the ones you love. Be there for each other and God Bless America.
Terry Morin, September 2001