GANNETT NEWS SERVICE
(Original publication: Sept. 12, 2001)
WASHINGTON — Retired Col. Powell Hutton was working less than a mile away from the Pentagon yesterday when he heard the loud roar of an engine.
"It went right overhead and I thought to myself, 'Uh oh,' " Hutton said. "Then about three seconds later I heard a 'whomp.' "
The Pentagon had become the second U.S. target, after the World Trade Center in New York, to be hit by hijacked airplanes.
"We felt the damn thing hit hard," said Army Chief Felipe Garcia, who was on the fourth floor on the north side of the Pentagon.
Late yesterday, Pentagon officials still had no estimates of casualties and were still fighting the fire.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was at his desk when the hijacked American Airlines 757 — en route from Washington Dulles to Los Angeles with 64 people aboard— slammed into the building. He ran outside the building and helped load the injured onto stretchers before heading to the National Command Center deep inside the Pentagon, according to Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley.
The command center began to fill with smoke at one point and officials considered evacuating, but later decided to remain, Quigley said.
The scene outside the Pentagon was nearly as chaotic. The walls of the Pentagon had broken open, exposing interior offices.
Retired Gen. Wesley Clark told CNN that the 4th, 5th, and 6th corridors appeared to have been hit. That area houses many Army offices.
One Pentagon employee, in an interview on Washington television, said hallways were "foggy" as workers tried to make their way to the nearest exits. But he described the evacuation process as orderly.
Television footage showed a gaping hole in the Pentagon that stretched from the exterior wall to the inner courtyard of the five-sided building.
"It just was amazingly precise," Daryl Donley, a commuter, said of the plane's impact. "It completely disappeared into the Pentagon."
Smoke and flames engulfed the west wall. Cars traveling nearby were lifted up off the roadway and showered with rocks and debris.
Among the trash littering the road was a scorched green oxygen tank marked "Cabin air. Airline use."
When the debris shower stopped, people began getting out of their cars, some of them screaming.
A woman ran up the road shouting: "There'll be a second plane. Get out of here, get out of here."
A Pentagon guard yelled at the commuters to get back in their cars. As the traffic crept along, there was a second explosion, caused by propane tanks on a construction site at the Pentagon.
At 11:30 a.m., a large group of rescue workers could be seen running away from the scene as huge flames leapt from the building.
"What you see here is a full assault on the United States of America," Quigley said.
The road next to the heliport looked like a war zone trauma scene. Dozens of ambulances lined up single file in front of a white tent. Army medical helicopters shuttled wounded, landing in a grassy highway median strip.
A refrigerated tractor-trailer arrived at a makeshift command center outside the Pentagon at 1:30 p.m., presumably to hold the dead.
The FBI cordoned off the Pentagon as a crime scene, and F-16 fighter planes from the D.C. National Guard patrolled the skies overhead.
Uniformed officers, soldiers in camouflage and civilian bicyclists formed a human supply chain to bring water and juice from a nearby convenience store to emergency workers.
Part of the area near where the plane hit had been under renovation. Adm. Stephen Pietropaoli credits recently installed blast-proof windows with not shattering, reducing the number of injuries.
Asked if the Pentagon was prepared for such an attack, Quigley replied, "We have a variety of security plans for a variety of things. As far as having some sort of preparation to defend against an airplane coming down, that's not something we had in the plans."