Command and control of a major structure collapse are very daunting tasks. Massive loss of life, precarious remaining structures, overtaxed local resources, and a panicked public make the response to this type of emergency quite challenging. Add in one of the largest government buildings in the United States; multiple jurisdiction complications of the largest scale; and the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and the Coast Guard, and you have an introduction to the Urban Search and Rescue response to the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

Local Virginia fire units from Arlington County, Fort Myer, the City of Alexandria, and Fairfax County were immediately dispatched (through automatic-aid agreements) after the Boeing 757 was flown into the Pentagon’s E-ring. Arlington County units rescued several people from inside the burning building. The building burned intensely for approximately 20 minutes and then suddenly, and without warning, collapsed. All five floors of the affected area collapsed in supported lean-to, unsupported lean-to, or pancake style collapses. The resulting scene was that of a plane crash, a major fire, and a structure collapse on a highly secured government site of national interest.

(1) A view of the west side of the Pentagon (impact area) during the first of several building evacuations. Reports of an unidentified aircraft approaching the Washington, DC, area promoted the evacuations. The aircraft later crashed in Pennsylvania. (Photos by Brian Frantz.)
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Soon thereafter, the Arlington County (VA) Fire Department requested the assistance of the nearby Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams from Fairfax County, Virginia (VA TF-1) and Montgomery County, Maryland (MD TF-1).


Four FEMA USAR teams were activated to assist local authorities in the Pentagon search and rescue efforts. Joining the teams from Fairfax and Montgomery were Virginia Beach, Virginia (VA TF-2) and Nashville, Tennessee (TN TF-1). They were en route to the disaster scene within hours.

VA TF-1 was less than six miles from the scene. Soon after the mobilization orders came, an advance four-member team was dispatched to meet with local authorities in command of the incident (Arlington County Fire Department); perform an early reconnaissance of the scene, focusing on possible areas to deploy recon teams; assess the structural stability of the collapsed portion; and locate an area suitable for establishing the Base of Operations (BoO).

The Advance Team quickly interfaced with the on-scene incident commander. We told him that the remainder of the team was en route and was expected to arrive within a half hour. We then reported to the operations officer and asked about the tasks that would be assigned to our team. It is imperative that USAR leadership properly advise local authorities of the team’s capabilities and assets early in the incident. Many incident commanders are not aware of the resources a USAR team commands.

(2) Interior fire in the E-ring continues to grow and advance toward corridor 6.
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After becoming part of the incident command system (ICS), the Advance Team was free to start its own operations within the proper framework. We quickly went to work identifying areas for reconnaissance and selecting a site for the BoO.

After the entire task force arrived, two nine-person search and reconnaissance teams were formed and assigned to the structure’s B and D divisions, which were on either side of the collapsed area. There was still heavy fire and smoke conditions in several areas of the building. The high heat created by the jet fuel and the significant amount of concrete in the structure caused the heat to remain for several days.

During the search and recon of the two assigned areas, the team encountered conditions it had never seen before. None of the incidents to which we had responded throughout the world compared with the devastation encountered inside the Pentagon.

(3) View of the structure from Washington Boulevard.
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During this initial reconnaissance period, MD TF-1 had arrived and was setting up camp. Task force leaders and the local incident commanders attended a planning meeting to ensure that the two teams would work in a coordinated manner with the on-scene assets.

Typically, during a FEMA USAR response, an incident support team (IST) is dispatched to the site to coordinate the teams’ activities and to serve as liaison between the local IC and the team’s management. FEMA has three ISTs (the Red, White, and Blue teams), which rotate monthly. These teams were activated for the World Trade Center and the Pentagon responses. IST members are part of the USAR system and have undergone additional and specific training. On September 11, 2001, all air flights were grounded, preventing many of the IST members, who rely on air transportation, from responding immediately. One member of VA TF-1, a member of the Blue IST team, made it to the Pentagon immediately along with one member of MD TF-2. They “drafted” three additional personnel from VA TF-1 and MD TF-1 to form the initial on-site IST group, which coordinated the first two days of the Pentagon incident. After traveling by car from Florida and Nebraska, other IST members arrived on site by the third day.

By approximately 1500 hours, operations had become more focused. The immediate fire situation had been controlled (enough to allow more extensive interior operations; fires in the roof continued for nearly three days despite the heroic efforts of the fire departments involved), and the USAR operations could expand. MD TF-1 was assigned to continue the recon in the D division; it was expanded to include all floors and then around to the C division. VA TF-1 performed the same duties in the B division.

During this time period, the structural engineers from both teams surveyed the collapsed area and quickly determined that the area could be safely attacked only by “de-layering,” a process of “peeling” off the collapsed floors one by one. Before this could be done, however, a significant amount of shoring had to be erected in the B division because of the floors’ instability.

During the late evening hours of the first day, it was determined that VA TF-1 would work through the first night and MD TF-1 would relieve the team the next morning. The IST had procured sleeping quarters at a nearby naval air base; buses transported them there for the night. The rotation was scheduled for 0700 and 1900 hours each day. When VA TF-2 and TN TF-1 arrived, they were placed in the rotation, with VA TF-2 working the night shift and TN TF-1 the day shift.

An extensive shoring operation was carried out over the next eight days. For nearly four days, working around the clock, the four USAR teams combined to construct 55 box crib towers (made completely of 6-inch 2 6-inch material with an average height of 15 feet) and more than 38 T-shores and vertical shores. This work was accomplished with significant assistance from the Arlington/Alexandria Fire Departments’ combined technical rescue team and the Military District of Washington’s engineer battalion. At this point, the building was considered stable enough to start the de-layering process. While the cranes started their work, more shoring was constructed inside the building; meanwhile, the search—and now recovery—operation continued.

It was apparent from the early searches that the chances of finding any survivors would be minimal. The amount of destruction caused by the impact, as well as the fire, created a scene of burned-out offices; charred bodies and body parts were scattered throughout. Our rescue squads worked through each night shift, digging through the debris, identifying any remains found, and constructing the shores.

Using the crane, the teams began de-layering the collapsed area. Because of the dangerous overhanging material, a concrete “pulverizer” attached to the crane did the work. As this machine pulled down material, dog teams and rescue personnel searched through the pile, identifying and removing victims. Unfortunately, no live victims were found.

Our rescue personnel also had to identify and remove any airplane parts found in the wreckage. Unbelievably, the largest part we found was a piece of the nose gear; it was embedded in the wall next to the C-ring.

Six days after our arrival, the USAR team from New Mexico arrived, and VA TF-1 was demobilized. The work had already started to wind down, and MD TF-1 was demobilized the next day. VA TF-2 and TN TF-1 remained on the site another day before they were demobilized. NM TF-1 remained on site for another two days, assisting the local authorities as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation.


Each FEMA USAR team consists of four rescue squads, each with five rescue specialists and an officer. A rescue specialist in VA TF-1 must be an experienced firefighter who has completed a rigorous certification school in technical rescue operations. These specialists have to attend at least four drills on technical rescue skills each year as well as the two full-team drills. The majority of these members are assigned to one of Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department’s eight heavy rescue companies, three of which are technical rescue-capable.

Because of the proximity of the Pentagon mission, a medical specialist (paramedic) was added to each squad, bringing the squad strength to seven. The size of the squad allows for single-operation assignments and makes it possible to split the squad for other work outside of the hazard area.

Once an USAR team is activated and the position roster has been completed, the four rescue squad officers commence the following duties: locate all team members and check on their “check-in” status. Check-in consists of signing in, weighing, and certifying all personal gear (members may bring up to 65 pounds of gear in their two issued bags); completing information forms; passing a mini-physical; signing for and receiving a radio; and stowing any mission-specific necessary rations. The squad officer must ensure that all of the team’s members complete each facet of the check-in procedure. Squad members who fail to complete any component of the check-in process are replaced by alternates.

Once the check-in had been completed, a team briefing was held to inform members of the team’s deployment status and the mission objectives. The team then boarded ground transportation to the incident site, a half-hour ride. Team members use this travel time to discuss site planning and other logistical issues; the rescue squads use this precious time to eat, hydrate, and sleep. While en route to the Pentagon, most experienced rescue members ate a Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MRE) and drank water while being briefed on preliminary safety issues and FEMA marking procedures.

Once on-site, the entire team worked at a fever pitch, focusing on two objectives: readying the reconnaissance teams and building a BoO, where they unload the trucks and set up the BoO as efficiently as possible so that the rescue squads can go to work as soon as the recon teams identify possible victim locations.

Both recon teams went to work inside the structure, searching and marking the structure as they went. These teams conducted quick searches of the areas directly in and around the crash site, very similar to the firefighting primary search. This search was done in little to no visibility and in moderate smoke conditions without the use of SCBA.

Other than for the basic unloading and dispatching of the recon teams, the operations officer gave task-specific assignments. These tactics are developed from the task force leader’s strategic objectives for the current operational work period.

While the recon elements were at work in the structure, the remaining personnel continued to ready the team for rescue operations. Once these support functions were completed, the rescue squads started to make the structure safe. Clearing external debris and locating shoring supplies were started in earnest. At this time, the structural engineers and the remaining squad leaders conferred on how to shore up the B sector.

We started by box cribbing just inside the wall near the left of the crash site. There was much debris inside and outside the structure; most of it had to be removed before shoring could begin. The area was cleared by heavy equipment and by hand.

Three shores were immediately constructed inside this wall. Team structural engineers had estimated that the corner column would need 200,000 pounds of support to be safe. A 6-foot 2 6-foot solid shore was constructed; the other two shores were three 6-inch 2 6-inch 2 6-foot-across members. Once these shores were completed, teams were able to move into the structure for additional shoring and reconnaissance.

Other squads set up two cranes to start dismantling and removing the collapsed sections. Rescue squads used a 70-ton crane with a personnel cage to work near and on the slabs to facilitate the picks. Before this, engineers and team managers used the crane to view the site.

Crews continued to shore the structure, building temporary T-shores, vertical shores, and dozens of box shores. Squads continually checked and tightened all shores. We continued with this work until our team rotated out.

Once personnel could operate inside the structure with some degree of safety, we began the grim task of conducting thorough searches for bodies and evidence. Squads were responsible for searching a specific area of the structure. This entailed moving each piece of material from the floors so that all areas could be properly checked. This task was extremely grueling and time consuming; members had to dig into the debris within the still dangerous structure. All floor space within the crash site, extending from corridor 4 to 5 and from the A- to the E-rings was searched.

Our members were exposed to many hazards including physical hazards, asbestos, infectious contaminants, standing water, chemicals, and charged electrical appliances. Keeping personnel healthy and safe were top priorities. Mandatory physicals were given at the start of every shift. After the second morning, the team began using shower and sleeping facilities. Personnel were given daily safety briefings concerning the known and potential hazards, the required personal protective equipment, evacuation procedures, and other safety issues.

Security is always a concern during this type of operation, but it was even more so during the first few days, when the threat of another attack on the United States was present. This made unit integrity an absolute must at all times. Squad leaders had to know the whereabouts and disposition of their personnel at all times, especially during the many evacuation warnings that were sounded.


•Networking and cooperative drills held prior to the event paid great dividends during the Pentagon operations. Liaisons with other search and rescue teams, as well as the U.S. Army’s rescue team, proved to be invaluable.

•Allowing rescuers to contact home during this time of international crisis went a long way toward reassuring them and allowing them to concentrate on the job.

•Private enterprise can prove extremely useful during a large-scale disaster. Familiarization with local and regional assets may greatly assist in the search for logistical support when needed on such a great scale.

•Task forces are equipped with a minimal amount of self-contained breathing apparatus. On a typical deployment, the team does not arrive until a day or so post-event. In this instance, we were on-site while active fire was still in the building. We had to perform some recon activities in moderate smoke conditions. In addition, most of our civilian members (engineers, doctors) had no training in the use of SCBA. This has led to basic SCBA and haz-mat training for all civilian members. The issue of adding additional breathing apparatus is still open for debate, because of weight and storage limitations.

•All operational signals need to be coordinated and briefed to all responding organizations. In this case, the local fire department used one long blast to signal evacuation. FEMA USAR teams use this same signal to cease operations but not evacuate. Communicating the proper signals, as well as an assembly point, is a critical part of overall scene safety.

ROBERT DUBÉ, a 25-year veteran of the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department, is a captain assigned to the Fire Training Division. He is an operations officer for Virginia Task Force 1 (VA TF-1), FEMA/OFDA Urban Search and Rescue team; the training coordinator for VA TF-1; an instructor for FEMA’s collapse rescue technician course; and a contract instructor for the National Fire Academy. Dubé is a member of FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue System Rescue Working Group. He has an associate’s degree in fire service administration.

BOB ZOLDOS, an eight-year veteran of the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department, is captain of Engine Company 37 (B-Shift) and a rescue squad officer for Virginia Task Force 1, FEMA/OFDA Urban Search and Rescue team. He is an adjunct instructor at the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Academy for recruit training and technical operations. He has a master’s degree in public administration and has begun work on a doctorate degree.

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