BY DALE C. RIELAGE
The morning of September 11, I had been in the building three hours by the time the 8:30 staff meeting began. My office had moved a week and a half before to fourth-floor offices on the E-ring in the newly renovated wedge of the building. The staff meeting was being held in a conference room in the newly completed Navy Command Center on the first floor. The usual routine of the meeting was quickly interrupted as the intelligence watch brought news of the successive attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. When the meeting ended at 9:30, I stopped in the back room where the Navy intelligence watch was already in conference, discussing how to respond to the attacks.
About five minutes later, at the time of impact, I was on the phone with an officer in another part of the building. The impact was more felt than heard, a percussive thump in the chest. The officer on the phone, a veteran of car bombings during Mideast tours, immediately said, “They hit us. Gotta go.”
My first thoughts were “car bomb”—even after the events in New York, it still seemed the most likely event—and to find where and how close to us the building had been hit. Because of the size of the building, during routine fires only affected sections are evacuated. Several months before, a small fire had forced the evacuation of a section of the building. We had learned that there was a fire in the building by watching the live footage on CNN. One of the staff opened the door to the hallway and yelled, “There is smoke in the hall!” As the smoke was building in the hallway, we gathered office personnel and kept discipline enough to close the safes and ensure that the office door was locked.
Our evacuation route took us from the outer E-ring down the fourth corridor to the inner A-ring, down the escalators down four floors to the courtyard. The initial light smoke conditions quickly built throughout the hallway. As we moved, there was talk of going into the Navy Command Center—low and in the center of the building. It seemed safe from secondary attacks and was a place where we could get news. Once on the first floor, I glanced down the fourth corridor, toward the Command Center, and saw that heavy smoke was coming from that direction, despite the newly installed smoke doors. We exited to the courtyard. Most personnel continued through the other side of the building and out to the exterior.
In these first areas of immediate safety, just outside the exit from the third and fourth corridors, personnel from the Pentagon clinic had begun to arrive. An Army captain in a medical smock with a radio was calling back to the clinic, reporting the scope of the emergency and calling for more assistance. I identified myself as an EMT, and she asked, “Do you remember triage?” When I said yes, she quickly pointed to the ground, indicating where she wanted each category of patient. Survivors and those with light injuries who could walk were directed to continue on to the outside of the building. The numbers who were gasping from the smoke were directed to benches where volunteers could watch them for serious distress. About half a dozen serious cases, primarily burns and blunt trauma injuries, were staged in the grass areas and attended. Fortunately, the flow of injured personnel was equaled by the number of medical personnel arriving from the Pentagon medical clinic and volunteers—no one was going without treatment. Personnel from the clinic arrived with whatever equipment they could carry. After a few moments, Lieutenant General Paul K. Carlton, the Air Force Surgeon General and a trauma surgeon, arrived on-scene. After looking at the situation, he indicated he would begin triaging patients and began relaying what equipment he wanted brought to the Pentagon from around the DC area.
(2) An aerial operates in the interior courtyard of the Pentagon on the evening of September 11.
With a professional in charge of triage and no more injured coming out of the building, I grabbed a basic life support bag and reentered the building, with at least one other officer following. Heading down the fourth corridor, we turned right into the breezeway area, an alley between the B- and C-rings that runs around most of the building, with the building rising five floors on either side.
Walking into the fourth corridor, I could hear the fire before seeing it. The breezeway area was filled with debris—some of it concealed in the six inches of standing water that had collected in the roadway. Two large openings had been blown in the C-ring wall at the first-floor level. The more distant had clearly flashed over—fire was blowing out the entire opening. The nearer opening was pushing thick black smoke. Stopping before the first opening, I realized this was the back end of the Navy Command Center, where I had been shortly before. About two dozen military personnel of every service and rank were in the midst of the breezeway, many trying to force entry to the building. Men were stripping off their polyester uniform shirts, rolling in the collected water for protection from the heat, and trying to push their way in. Hard hats and equipment from the recent construction were pressed into service, with one Army officer trying earnestly to rig a power washer as a hoseline to cover those trying to reenter. Despite the desperate efforts, no one seemed to be having much success. With the glass on the upper floors beginning to break out and Defense Protective Service personnel trying to order everyone to leave the area, I retraced my steps to the courtyard. As I was leaving, the first Arlington fire crews were coming into the breezeway area.
In the courtyard, the injured and most of the medical personnel had evacuated to the outside of the building, and the scene was strangely quiet. An Arlington County Fire Department battalion chief had arrived and established a command post inside the yard. Defense Protective Service officers yelled to the few remaining military personnel that another plane was inbound; eventually the first fire crews that had gone into the building returned, dropping their gear with the few remaining Navy personnel and waiting. An arriving combat air patrol F-16 thundered overhead, and as we could not see it until it was past, we dove for the ground, convinced that another attack was taking place. At the sight of the F-16, there was a spontaneous cheer from the gathered group.
Eventually, the signal was given that crews could return into the building, and the earlier medical teams, with General Carlton in charge, returned into the courtyard. In contrast to the initial confusion, the ad hoc medical team of more than 100 was quickly organized. Personnel were identified by skill, equipment was gathered and sorted, and personnel from the Pentagon clinic established and maintained communications with the main effort outside the building. Ultimately, these teams would wait in the courtyard for hours and then eventually shift to the outside areas, where we would watch the initial USAR teams arrive. After the initial minutes of the attack though, I saw no injured come out of the building. By 3:00 p.m., members of the U.S. Army’s Old Guard arrived to assume security and rescue duties; after a short prayer by a military chaplain, all the volunteer military personnel were dismissed.
I had heard along the way that the personnel from my office had moved to the Navy Annex, just up the hill that overlooks the Pentagon. After finding my way through the security cordon, I walked into the office that would be our home for the next several months. After the critical questions “Who have you seen” and “Who’s missing?” someone said, “You heard the towers fell?” Of the many rumors I had heard throughout the day, that one had seemed the least plausible.
Most of the personnel working in the Navy Command Center and the Navy intelligence watch, friends and colleagues, were killed in the attack. Those who survived fought their way out of the remains of the Command Center and distinguished themselves by saving not only themselves but also others nearby. Beyond their conspicuous heroism, there was much heroism of a quieter, enduring sort—the people who immediately began to reconstitute the offices that had been destroyed subsumed their grief and shock and spent the next weeks working to exhaustion to plan how our nation would respond.
In the year since the attack, the Navy has dispatched an admiral to visit each of the emergency organizations from across the nation that responded to the Pentagon. Each admiral carried a letter signed by the senior leaders of the Navy and a plaque showing a lone sailor looking out toward the horizon. They are sincere tokens of our appreciation for those who stood with us that day in the first battle of a long war.
DALE C. RIELAGE is a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy. On September 11, 2001, he was assigned to the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations in the Pentagon. He has served as a Navy Damage Control Assistant and as a volunteer firefighter/EMT at several previous duty stations. The opinions expressed in this article are his and not those of any agency of the U.S. Government.