On THE request OF the Arlington County Fire Department (ACFD) and recommendations from on-scene members of the FEMA USAR Incident Support Team-Advanced (IST-A), four FEMA USAR task forces and the Red IST-A were dispatched to the Pentagon collapse. All responded using ground transportation because air traffic was shut down.

The 20-person IST-As are designed to travel light and fast. They are highly experienced firefighters, officers, structural engineers, and physicians assigned to FEMA USAR task forces around the nation. They often arrive at the disaster site ahead of the task forces and help set the stage for and coordinate task force operations.

(1) As the debris was removed from Division A, the extent of the damage resulting from the initial impact of the airplane and fire to the remainder of the building became apparent. Photos by author.
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IST-A members from Southern California (including myself) traveled on a C-141 cargo plane from March Air Force Base in Riverside, California, to New Jersey’s McQuire AFB. We then boarded an Air Force helicopter and arrived at the Pentagon on September 12 at 4 a.m.


Within moments of the collapse, the Pentagon incident commander had designated a USAR branch to help manage the collapse search and rescue operations. The Red IST-A was eventually assigned to command the USAR branch, in keeping with our role of establishing a liaison with the local IC, determining the mission and scope of the USAR operation, developing a written memorandum of understanding with the local IC, and performing a wide variety of functions to ensure effective USAR operations that support the local responders.

Until the arrival of Red IST-A Leader John Huff (responding from Lincoln, Nebraska in a fire department vehicle), followed by IST-A Assistant Leader Deputy Chief Carlos Castillo of Miami-Dade (FL) Fire-Rescue, Fairfax County Deputy Chief Jim Strickland served as the interim IST leader. He was assisted by VA TF-1 Task Force Leader Mike Tamillow, who is leader of the White IST-A (which remained nondeployed and kept ready to respond to any additional disasters).


It was decided to integrate the Red IST-A into the Unified Command, joining ACFD Assistant Chief James Schwartz, Arlington Police Chief Dan Murray, Commanding General James Jackson of the Military District of Washington, and Federal Bureau of Investigations Special Agent Christopher Combs. The Unified Command team met every four hours to decide and coordinate strategic objectives: ensuring reasonably safe collapse SAR operations; preventing needless injuries and deaths of victims and responders; locating and rescuing (or recovering) all victims; providing structural stabilization to damaged sections of the Pentagon; and supporting the recovery of evidence by stabilizing the structure and helping to locate, extricate, and remove bodies and material. Throughout the Pentagon incident, the ACFD provided a liaison to the IST leader and deputy leader to ensure constant communication.

During the Unified Command meetings, the IST leader provided input from the IST and task force operations leaders that identified goals during each 12-hour operational period. The IST conveyed these goals in the IST Operations Plan and distributed the plan to all USAR resources, conducted briefings with USAR task force leaders and other affected parties before each operational period, and provided continuous coordination and supervision of USAR operations and support. In turn, each USAR task force developed its own written Tactical Plan every operational period. This system ensured that all resources were “on the same page,” which is particularly important at large-scale and complex disasters.


It was apparent to the IST-A that locating and removing all the victims from the Pentagon collapse might require as much as two weeks of nonstop operations. The main USAR objective was to locate and extricate all victims from the large combination “lean-to/pancake” collapse in Division A without additional casualties.

(2) A USAR task force technical search specialist and a structures specialist, in a personnel basket suspended over the collapse zone, watch for victims and signs of impending secondary collapse. The excavator on the left uncovered a large potential survivable void spaces buried within the pancake collapse on September 19.
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It was evident that the combined effects of the plane crash, a massive fuel-fed fire, and subsequent collapse would essentially require “re-engineering” of the Pentagon’s first and second floors in Divisions B, C, and D. This would be accomplished through a massive shoring operation conducted by the USAR task forces with coordination from the IST-A operations chiefs, structures specialists, and USAR specialists. There was an immediate need to reduce the potential for secondary collapse and “overhead hazards” before committing personnel into the main collapse area.

With those goals established, the IST and the USAR task forces in tandem with other technical rescue teams continued round-the-clock operations. The USAR Operations Plan was implemented with the unwritten understanding that additional terrorist attacks, some other type of natural or manmade disaster elsewhere in the United States, or even a disastrous secondary collapse at the World Trade Center site that traps rescuers might necessitate alternate strategies to expedite the process and make additional USAR task forces available for redeployment.

The daily routine for USAR resources included 0700- and 1900-hour shift changes. Two USAR task forces (and one-half of the roster of each local technical rescue team) were staffed throughout each of the 12-hour operational periods, meaning at least 180 USAR personnel worked in the collapse zone at all times.

For the IST-A “day shift,” work began at 0500 hours with a shift change briefing from the “night shift” and a tour of the collapse area. The status of strategic and tactical objectives was reviewed and observed, complications noted, and Operations Plan changes discussed. This was followed by a formal IST-A Operations Briefing at 0700 hours, attended by all IST-A members; USAR task force leaders; and representatives of other agencies.

Those of us assigned to the IST-A “night shift” followed essentially the same briefing process beginning at 1700 hours and lasting until 1900 hours or so, when the USAR task forces conducted their own shift change and continued to work the collapse area. Consequent-ly, each 12-hour operational period actually consisted of a 16-hour shift for the IST-A and others with operational command/control/coordination responsibilities.

IST operations chiefs Buddy Martinette (daytime operations) and Ruben Almaguer (night operations) developed a search and rescue strategy with the IST leaders to coordinate the tasks assigned to the FEMA USAR task forces; the technical rescue teams from the Arlington and Alexandria fire departments; a military rescue team; and civilian heavy equipment contractors in Divisions A, B, C, and D (on floors 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5), to accomplish the USAR objectives established by the ACFD com-mand and the IST leaders.

Several days into the incident, a California-based Type 1 Incident Management Team (IMT) was assigned to provide logistical support to the IST and the FEMA USAR task forces. Although the IMT isn’t developed for collapse rescue operations, its members were experienced in large-scale wildland fire management, particularly with respect to logistical support like ordering specialized equipment and facilitating transportation. On September 15, the IMT was integrated with the IST-A to make better use of its planning and logistical capabilities.


Viewed from a distance (or from television news cameras, whose location was restricted to a distant site outside the Pentagon grounds because of security concerns), the 80-foot-wide gash and the fire and smoke damage to the west face of the Pentagon—the only obvious external signs of damage—might mislead observers to conclude that the damage was confined to the collapse itself. But in truth, damage to the reinforced concrete frame/masonry infill Pentagon (part of which had been renovated and armored with KevlarT built into the outer walls at the time of the attack) was more extensive than could be seen from the outside. Hidden within the building was a 240-foot-deep, five-story collapse zone about the size of a football field, and nearly 200 victims. Surrounding the actual collapse were hundreds of feet of damaged building whose columns and supports had been blown out, burned, or otherwise damaged and whose floors were badly sagging and subject to secondary collapse with very little prompting.

In terms of technical difficulty, carnage, overall size of the collapse, and personnel hazards, there were disturbing similarities between the Pentagon collapse and the partially collapsed nine-story Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The main collapse area in front of the Pentagon was identified as Division A, with the standard ICS assignments of Divisions B, C, and D made in a standard clockwise sweep beginning with Division A.

USAR operations were predicated on the five standard phases of structure collapse search and rescue: Size up and Recon (Stage 1); Surface Rescue (Stage 2), which includes the Primary Search; Void Space Search (Stage 3), which includes the Secondary Search; Selected Debris Removal (Stage 3), which includes carefully dissecting the building with heavy equipment and rescue personnel and looking for live victims and the deceased; and General Debris Removal (Stage 5), including the clearance of all material using heavy equipment and other methods. As a general rule, these five stages are employed by collapse rescue operations in the United States, regardless of size or scope.

Each USAR task force consists of 68 persons organized into search, rescue, medical, and technical teams. Each task force is further divided into four six-person rescue squads; two 2-person technical search squads; four canine search teams; two medical squads; and specialists in heavy equipment, logistics, communications, structural engineering, technical information, and hazardous materials response. Each position on the USAR task force is duplicated to allow round-the-clock operations. This systematic approach, which worked so well at other disasters, proved itself once again at the Pentagon.

Naturally, USAR operations were preceded by standard “fireground” primary and secondary searches of all floors of the affected areas of the building that were accessible during the fire attack operations. These searches were conducted diligently by firefighters from the local agencies during the intense firefighting operation that had taken place during the first 12 to18 hours of the incident. Yet, because of the magnitude of the disaster and the limitations imposed by the manner in which the aircraft went through the building, thousands of square feet of space in the fire-affected areas of all five floors remained chest-high in incinerated debris. This required a third round of thorough searching by hand, to ensure that no bodies (or parts of bodies) were left behind or would end up in dump trucks during Stage 5.

From Day One it was clear to engineers (structures specialists) attached to the IST and the USAR task forces that a major stabilization operation was required to prevent Division B and parts of Division C and D from collapsing and burying rescuers in Division A, where the combination lean-to/pancake collapse had occurred.

There was another complication: the two-foot-thick concrete roof structure topping Division A. Because of the angle of the lean-to collapse, the concrete roof appeared poised to start a massive “slide.” With no easy access to conduct inspections below the roof, the engineers were unable to determine exactly what was holding it in place. Some of the structures specialists suspected that only a small number of rebar strands might be connected, while others postulated it might be a combination of inertia and internal connections between the collapsed and “uncollapsed” sections of the building. The engineers were concerned that the entire upper deck might “avalanche” into Division B, much like a layered cake slides in layers if tilted sufficiently. Such a cascade of hundreds of tons of material striking Division B might, in turn, cause it to fall back onto Division A.

Because of the intense fire that raged for half a day on September 11, the survivability profile for victims trapped in the Division A collapse was considered relatively low. Still, no one discounted the possibility of live, viable victims buried somewhere deep in the collapse where they would be neither seen nor heard until the upper layers of the collapse were removed. Similar discoveries have been made in previous collapse disasters, so there was an intense effort to dissect Division A as soon as the surrounding areas were shored up to prevent secondary collapse that could kill rescuers and seal the fate of trapped victims.

There was also the difficult problem of the two-foot-thick reinforced concrete roof and the multiple layers of “pancake” collapse, which appeared ready to “avalanche” into Division B at the slightest provocation, causing a tertiary collapse. This was an engineering and rescue problem that would have to be tackled by the IST-A and structures specialists from all four USAR task forces. While potential solutions were being weighed, the IST-A directed the USAR task forces to continue shoring the most vulnerable parts of Divisions B, C, and D before committing personnel to penetrate and “de-layer” Division A. At the same time, USAR task force search teams conducted a thorough and methodical secondary search of the upper floors looking for victims who might have been missed during the firefighting operations.

At this point the list of missing people (taken from the Flight 77 passenger and crew rosters and Pentagon employees who were missing) hovered around 200. Although dozens of bodies had already been located and marked for later removal in various parts of Divisions B, C, and D, approximately 150 more people were unaccounted for.


To reach each spot where shoring was to be placed, rescuers methodically worked their way from a shored area to a nonshored section, placing temporary shoring in the form of pneumatic pipe shores and other short-term measures. The task forces began stabilizing the front of Division B and constructed a variety of shores to replace missing and damaged structural columns. As they worked their way into the building toward Division C in the rear, they built a kind of “forest” consisting of immense shoring combinations to support damaged and broken beams. Simultaneously, other rescue squads from the task forces worked to stabilize Division D, working their way toward Division C. Working by hand and with hand tools, the rescuers removed tons of debris, locating bodies and body parts. When a section of slab of sufficient size was cleared down to “clean” concrete, a base was built and the shoring went up. It was painstaking work, requiring rescuers to cut and remove tons of debris and pass it out “bucket brigade” style.

Tons of lumber, cut to specified dimensions by cutting teams that had been established outside the building, were passed into the building in the same manner. The rescue squads called out the required dimensions, which were relayed to the cutting teams, who quickly sized the timbers and cut them to the specified dimensions. By September 12, a sort of “shoring factory” had been established, complete with its own lumberyard that was constantly restocked by fleets of local lumber trucks, as well as various cutting stations built on the site to expedite the sizing of shoring lumber. Essentially, the affected parts of the Pentagon were “reengineered” by the firefighters and task forces and teams, to effect the removal of all victims and to provide for a relatively safe crime scene investigation.

Whenever victim remains were located, work in the area was halted or altered to protect the body, personal belongings, and evidence. An FBI evidence team (one of several on constant standby in front of the collapse) was called in to photograph and gather victim-related evidence. If physical extrication was required, a rescue squad from the assigned USAR task force was given this task. The next step in the process was a military mortuary team that collected and removed the victim from the building.

The task forces used practically every tool in their 50,000-pound equipment caches. The wide variety of work assignments required to locate and remove the victims proved to be a substantial test of our equipment and logistical resupply system.

The IST-A plans chiefs produced a written USAR Action Plan for each 12-hour operational period. The plan was constantly updated to reflect the current conditions, the progress being made, problems being encountered (and solutions to fix them), strategic and tactical goals for the next operational period, and factors such as anticipated weather and the security conditions. Within the USAR Action Plan were a Communications Plan, a Safety Plan, a Medical Plan, a Rapid Intervention and Personnel Accoun-tability Plan, a Shoring/Stabilization Plan, and other elements.

The task forces and other resources conducted round-the-clock shoring operations to prevent the Division B side of the building and parts of Division C and D from collapsing and burying rescuers when they began working to search void spaces and “de-layer” Division A (shoring operations continued in various parts of the Pentagon until September 21). One private engineer who reviewed the progression of shoring and stabilization operations at the Pentagon concluded that the areas around the Division A collapse might be more stable after the incident than before, because of the immense “forest” of shoring that had been erected.

The USAR task force rescue squads assigned to shore and stabilize Divisions B, C, and D progressed from supported areas of the building toward the places where columns had been destroyed or damaged (standard protocol for penetrating into a heavily damaged and highly unstable building). This allowed the rescue specialists to work in relatively safe areas while they methodically proceeded into nonshored areas that would otherwise remain unsafe to enter. With advice from the structural engineers, they concentrated most of the shoring in Division B, levels 1 and 2, to replace missing and damaged structural columns. Division B eventually took on the appearance of a harshly lit forest consisting of immense shoring combinations that supported damaged columns and broken beams.

The task forces methodically worked their way from stabilized areas to those places in need of support, installing temporary support in the form of pneumatic and hydraulic shoring systems, to be followed later by more permanent wood shoring.


On the evening of September 12, the IST-A met to discuss solutions for the problems presented by Division A (the reinforced slab roof threatening to “avalanche” into Division B). One possible solution was to break up the concrete deck into manageable sections that could be lifted off with cranes in a controlled manner to prevent the whole thing from avalanching. But how to do it without killing rescuers?

One option was to establish rope systems to belay rescuers onto the upper reaches of the monolithic slab and have them bore holes and insert search cameras or remote probes to look for victims trapped in the spaces below. After clearing the spaces of any victims, the rescuers would then use jackhammers and concrete saws to cut the slab into smaller pieces that they would prepare for slinging and removal by crane. However, the reinforced concrete roof (and the pancaked layers of building beneath) came to rest at a precarious angle that would challenge rescuers’ attempts to stand on it while making bore holes, searching the void spaces below, and cutting the concrete into smaller pieces for slinging by crane. If the slab were to suddenly “avalanche” from beneath the feet of rescuers, they might be swept along with it unless the rope systems held them in place (in which case they might be severely injured or killed by the debris hurtling past).

Another option was to use fire department aerial platforms or personnel baskets suspended below cranes, which would allow rescuers to operate from the relative safety of these platforms while they bored holes, searched the voids for victims, and prepared the slab pieces for removal by crane. It would require the aerial platforms or the personnel baskets to be placed inches above the angled slab and the rescuers to operate their tools in precarious and unnatural positions to avoid standing on the slab they were cutting or slinging. It would be physically demanding, time-consuming work that would take days of round-the-clock operations.

Then a member of the IST-A recalled a type of excavator known as a multiprocessor equipped with a tool that has the combined capabilities of a “concrete pulverizer,” a metal-cutting “shear” with a sort of mechanical wrist that allows the tool to swivel 360 degrees on the end of an articulating boom. The machine had the ability to pulverize concrete slabs, pinch large pieces of slab between a mechanical “thumb and forefinger,” and even grasp steel I-beams to “sweep” debris from a rubble pile. It seemed to be the answer.

The IST-A logistics personnel were assigned to track down the closest excavator with the above-mentioned capabilities and to get it to the Pentagon, with emergency police escorts to expedite its response. Logistics determined that they were looking for an ultra-high-reach excavator equipped with a multiprocessor for pulverizing and shear work. Within hours, such a machine was found operating at a Baltimore demolition project. Because of the size and appearance of the excavator, it quickly became known as the “T-Rex” by rescuers at the Pentagon. The T-Rex had been used only on two previous jobs, including the demolition of a stadium. Plans were made to get it to Washing-ton, D.C., with a police escort directly to the Pentagon.

Meanwhile the task forces continued shoring around the perimeter of Division A. By the afternoon of September 13, the T-Rex was sitting in front of the Pentagon with two operators prepared to conduct round-the-clock operations.


As the T-Rex went to work on the evening of September 14, the task force members were pulled out of the vulnerable parts of the Pentagon and assigned to assemble a safe distance away. The task forces continued shoring operations on floors 1 and 2 of Division B and elsewhere, and conducting a methodical search of the upper floors for victims who might have been missed during earlier sweeps. But they were kept out of the areas thought to be most vulnerable to secondary collapse if the Division A roof were to avalanche into Division B as a result of the T-Rex’s work. FEMA heavy equipment and rigging specialists ensured that the T-Rex operators and the other heavy equipment worked in concert with the Operational Plan and with the rescuers inside who were carrying out the operations.

The T-Rex dissected the slab, carefully picked up each piece off the top of the collapse zone, and deposited it on the ground or in a dump truck. The operators were able to pulverize the slab at will, then “grab” large pieces—including large items like safes and computers from within the upper floor debris—and place them wherever they chose (within the reach of the articulating boom), depositing them gently on the ground (where they would be taken into FBI custody).

It became increasingly difficult for the operators to discriminate debris from bodies trapped within it, in part because everything began to take on the color of concrete dust. It was also necessary to provide instant guidance regarding which pieces of the building could safely be cut and removed, and in which order, to prevent secondary collapse and other safety hazards. The IST-A established a 24-hour Lookout for victims, evidence, and signs of secondary collapse. Each Lookout crew consisted of one task force search team member and one structures specialist stationed in a “man lift” basket suspended high above the Pentagon beneath a 200-foot crane that was stationed directly in front of the Pentagon for this purpose.

A secondary collapse occurred on the evening of September 15 while the T-Rex was working. The collapse was significant, and it literally shook the ground. Fortunately, the shoring in Division B held after being struck by tons of debris, and there was no additional loss of life or injuries from this potentially lethal event.

The “de-layering” of Division A required a mixture of selected debris removal and void space search. Periodically, new void spaces would be opened up during the process. Search teams physically searched every new accessible void area for victims, crawling into them when possible. They used remote search devices, search dogs, and direct visual and voice contact. Some of the deceased victims were mostly intact, in void spaces that might have offered a chance of survival had it not been for the intense fire that raged there during the first 36 hours of the disaster.

The T-Rex would dissect the building to the limits of its reach (or until a floor had been removed), then pull back to allow a grappler to move into place to remove debris that had fallen from the collapse and to eat its way farther into Division A. The grappler would deposit materials on the ground in front of the Pentagon for further searches, then move out to allow the pulverizer to come back in. These rotations sometimes took hours, a meticulous process that continued for more than a week.

Once the debris was spread out, canine search teams would search for any scent indicating human remains. Then search team members conducted a physical search for remains, crawling and walking over all the debris. Finally, after being searched three or more times, the debris was loaded into trucks with skip loaders and taken to one of the Pentagon parking lots to be further combed for human remains and evidence by the FBI, ATF, military units, and Arlington Police Department. This process continued until the entire collapse zone had been dismantled and all victims were located and removed.


By September 18 there was sufficient progress to begin demobilizing the teams that had been at work the longest. On September 21, the IST advised Arlington command that all areas of the building had been searched several times, all shoring operations were complete, and the USAR goals had been met. On September 22, all search and rescue efforts ceased, and the FBI assumed responsibility for on-scene command and control to complete its crime scene efforts.


Local fire/rescue agency chiefs and officers will be at a distinct advantage in future disasters if they are familiar with the Federal Response Plan, the FEMA USAR Task Force System, and the FEMA IST concept and if they have developed local plans to integrate these vast and highly experienced federal resources at a large or complex disaster.

Collapse SAR operations related to earthquakes and terrorist attacks require round-the-clock operations to locate and remove all victims within the window of survivability and to recover the dead in a timely manner. Emergency officials should plan to search for live victims for up to three weeks, based on the survival profiles from previous collapse disasters.

Generally, all five stages of structure collapse rescue should be conducted—in order, when possible. At the Pentagon, void space search was taking place in one section of the building while selected debris removal was being done in another.

The Federal Response Plan works. FEMA activated four USAR task forces to Washington (as well as a dozen more to New York) within one hour of the terrorist attacks.

The FEMA National USAR Response System is expandable. The mission of this system had already been expanded to include weapons of mass destruction response before the 9-11 attacks. In recent years there have been hearings to explore the possibility of expanding the role of the National USAR task forces to cover flood rescue operations and other disasters involving trapped people.

Fire, heat, and smoke from the jet fuel-stoked fire killed many occupants of the Pentagon who might otherwise have survived the initial crash of the 757 airplane into their building. If not for the fire, it’s quite possible that live victims might have been located and rescued from the collapse of Division A in the days following 9-11.

As a matter of principle, rescuers should assume—until proven otherwise—that there may be live victims in a collapse of the size and nature of the Pentagon incident. Victims should not be “written off” until their survival has been demonstrated to be impossible because of conditions such as intense fire, lethal radiation (“dirty bombs”), and nonsurvivable submersion.

Modern fire/rescue agencies should give serious consideration to the potential for combined “collapse” and nuclear, biological, or chemical (NBC) terrorist attacks. For years, some terrorism experts and fire/rescue authorities have warned about the potential for a terrorist attack that would trap people in collapsed structures and involve the presence of NBC agents. This “worst-case scenario” could place firefighters in the unenviable position of being confronted with live victims trapped in various places within collapsed structures, being forced to deal with the effects of NBC agents strategically placed to be dispersed by an explosion or by the collapse itself.

The criticality of experience and training in collapse disasters cannot be overstated. Lessons learned in previous disasters were applied at the Pentagon collapse, leading to two weeks of round-the-clock USAR operations to give the best chance of survival to any victims who might be trapped alive in the rubble.

Effective disaster planning is based on a realistic assessment of the types of disasters possible in a particular locale. Based on the events of September 11, the time has come to plan for timely and effective response to terrorist attacks that just a few years ago were considered so outrageous as to be beyond the scope of plausibility. The 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, an annual assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies, states that “ships, trucks, airplanes, and other means” are the likely modes of delivery of terrorist weapons of mass destruction in the coming years. According to the report, these unusual delivery methods using common objects are “less expensive, more reliable and accurate, and more effective” for attacks to cause explosions or disseminate biological or chemical warfare agents.

This article is dedicated to members of FEMA’s NY TF-1 who were killed on September 11, including Deputy Chief Ray Downey of FDNY Special Operations Command (an original architect of the FEMA USAR Response System) and Lieutenant Dennis Mojica of FDNY Rescue 1, both of whom served on the FEMA USAR IST-A.

Larry Collins is a 23-year veteran of the fire service and a captain assigned to USAR Task Force 103, the central USAR Company of the County of Los Angeles Fire Department (LACoFD). He is a search team manager of the LACoFD’s FEMA USAR Task Force and worked as the assistant task force leader at the Northridge Earthquake. He is a USAR specialist on the FEMA Red IST-A, serving at the Pentagon collapse.

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