The 'Other' Tragedy
The attack on the Pentagon left heroes, victims, survivors, Here's their story
They all remember the blackness. It formed a wall of inky, blinding smoke inside the Pentagon, and Isaac Hoopii ran right through it. He wore only his short-sleeved blue police uniform--no mask, no protective coat, not even a handkerchief over his mouth. "Is anybody in here? Anybody here?" From the darkness, frantic voices replied: "Help me! Help me! I'm over here." Hoopii called back, over and over: "Head toward my voice, head toward my voice! Come toward my voice!"
Hoopii's is a singer's voice, deep and mellow, even in small talk. On weekends, the 38-year-old Hawaiian K-9 cop sings in a wedding band called the Aloha Boys. On September 11, Hoopii used his voice to save lives. He was at the Pentagon when the big Boeing 757 slammed into it.
We are reminded often of the haunting images of that infamous morning, especially the strikes against the twin towers in New York and the heroes of United Flight 93, who perished in a Pennsylvania field. But there was, of course, another attack that day. Terrorists also hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 and flew it into the west side of the Pentagon.
_ This is the story of that "other" attack. It is a story with its own distinctive collection of victims, heroes, survivors. We remember still the ghastly gash and the blackened facade of the famous five-sided building. For a while, the Pentagon was part of split-screen America with the World Trade Center. But attention quickly receded from Washington. So much so that sometimes we don't realize that more people died at the Pentagon--189--than in the Oklahoma City bombing.
Inner view. Since September 11, the gouge in the Pentagon has widened day by day, as the damage to the nation's symbolic fortress is far worse than first appeared. Demolition crews use an ultra-long-reach excavator (the only other one in the country is at ground zero, in New York) to remove the rubble, 5,000 pounds at a time. To look at the Pentagon today is to see a much different place, almost one without its geometric distinctiveness. The clean cuts on the edges of the building look as if they might have been part of the original design. Now the building's inner B ring is plainly visible, a view not possible when the Pentagon's construction was completed in January 1943.
In all, 400,000 square feet of office space will be rebuilt. Part of that area had been renovated recently, and that saved lives. Not all the offices were occupied that morning because of the renovation. In addition, the outer ring had been reinforced by floor-to-ceiling steel beams that ran through all five floors. Between them was a Kevlar-like mesh, similar to the material in bulletproof vests, which kept masonry from becoming shrapnel. Together, the beams and the mesh formed a citadel that kept the top floors from collapsing for about 35 minutes, time enough for some people to escape. New blast-resistant windows above the crash site didn't shatter. A new sprinkler system kept the fires from consuming the entire place.
Now, it's time to start over again. All in keeping with the original design--the 17 1/2 miles of corridors that connect the five rings--right down to replacement limestone from southern Indiana quarries. The grand ambition has people working in the outermost ring by Sept. 11, 2002.
Derek Spector has driven past the Pentagon countless times, visual furniture in his daily life. On September 11, he was five blocks away, sitting with fellow firefighters at Fire Station No. 5 in Arlington, Va., watching TV as the second plane rammed into the World Trade Center. "You never know, it could happen here," a friend on the phone said. "No way, man," Spector shot back. Then he heard a plane, fast and low.
The hijacked jetliner, traveling at 350 miles an hour, was only about 100 feet from the ground when it cruised over Arlington police officer Richard Cox's head, just a quarter mile from the Pentagon. "It was low enough for me to see the reflection of cars and trees and buildings on its underside as it passed by," he says. "It was low enough for my heart to stop."
The plane clipped light poles on nearby Route 27 and a backup generator at the Pentagon, bouncing off the ground before plowing into the building at a 45-degree angle. Originally bound for Los Angeles, the jet, carrying 64 people, crashed between corridors 4 and 5, blasting the first and second floors of Rings E, D, and C. "You could feel the explosion in your chest," says Cox. At the fire station, the ground shook. "What was that?" Spector shouted. "A plane," firefighter Brian Roach said.
Chaos. Wayne Sinclair heard it before he felt it. He outfitted computers for the Army on the first floor of the D Ring. As usual that morning, Sinclair, 54, caught the subway so he could be at work by 6, always the first of the seven employees to arrive in Room 1D520. He made coffee, dashed off a few E-mails, tinkered with computers. Shortly after 9:30 a.m., he and his colleagues were watching the World Trade Center attack on CNN's Web site when they heard a thunderous roar.
Everything turned black. Smoke and fire engulfed the room. Walls crumbled. Desks, file cabinets, and computers hurtled through the air. "You couldn't see anything," he says. Some people were thrown to the floor. Sinclair could feel his face, ears, and arms burning. But he couldn't see them because the smoke was so thick. People screamed for help. Chaos reigned.
Down the hall from Sinclair's office, Jim Lynch, 55, was well into his workday morning in room 1D457, part of the Navy Command Center. Officially, Lynch performed behind-the-scenes communications wizardry. But most knew him simply as the Candy Man. For years, he briskly walked the Pentagon halls, listening to light rock on his Walkman and wearing bright orange, red, and yellow ties and tennis shoes. The Candy Man bought cases of gold-wrapped Werther's Originals and handed them out each day during his lunch break, a big-hearted fixture in the bureaucratic maze. Trish Hackett, an Air Force executive assistant, like so many, heard of him soon after she started her Pentagon job a couple of years ago. "One day, a friendly, smiling Kenny Rogers look-alike wearing earphones handed me a piece of candy, and I knew I had finally met the Candy Man." Lynch had planned to take that Tuesday off, but he had too much work to do. He started his day meeting over bagels and doughnuts with an employee from the Norfolk, Va., naval base. Later, Lynch returned to his command center office. After the attack, his wife, Brenda, frantically called his number; she couldn't reach him.
Many of those affected by the attack had worked in the Pentagon for years and viewed it as a fortress. One ring away from the Candy Man's office, Louise Kurtz hadn't had time to develop that sense of comfort and control. She was starting only her second day in a new job at the Pentagon. Life was sweet. She and her husband, Mike, had saved for two years for their first real vacation ever last spring, an Alaskan cruise. The 49-year-old Army accountant was excited about her new job and was faxing payroll information. She went over to a coworker's desk with a radio so they could listen to reports from New York. Ten seconds later, their world exploded and a fireball swallowed them. The petite woman instinctively put her hands over her face before she somehow managed to climb out a window and escape.
Bomb! One floor up, John Yates worked in 2E471, a warren of cubicles. At 50, he was an Army security manager who handed out keys and employee badges. His morning also began quietly with E-mails and phone calls. "Do me a favor, do the rest of your work today under your desk," his wife, Ellen, said only half jokingly when they spoke by the phone after the World Trade Center news. He had been sitting on a table watching TV. When he stood up, the Pentagon shuddered. A big ball of fire knocked him to the floor. Black smoke flooded the room. Searing heat scorched him. Upended file cabinets blocked him.
Down the hall from Yates, Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell, 40, had been at his desk in Room 2E486 since 6:30 a.m. He had scanned the day's headlines and some documents, while sipping his ritual morning Coke. Cheryle Sincock, 53, worked there too. A two-star general's secretary, she had arrived, as always, at 4:30 a.m. There were always a million things to do before her boss arrived. Her husband, Craig, who worked two corridors away, called at 8 a.m. to say he was leaving the building for a meeting. Two daughters called later with news of the twin towers. "There's no way that's an accident," Birdwell murmured to Cheryle as they watched the World Trade Center crumble. Birdwell walked out to the men's room in corridor 4, a move that saved his life. He had just taken three or four steps out of the bathroom when the building was rocked. "Bomb!" the Gulf War vet immediately thought as he was knocked down. When he stood up, he realized he was on fire. "Jesus, I'm coming to see you," Birdwell prayed. His mind flashed to his family.
At Washington Hospital Center, Dr. Marion Jordan also was watching TV when an announcer broke in with the bulletin about the Pentagon. "This is gonna be a long day," Jordan muttered. Quickly, he ditched his sport coat for green scrubs. "Code Orange. Code Orange," a voice blared over the hospital's PA system. "This is not a drill." Doctors scrambled to the five bays near the helicopter pad. "It was pretty much bedlam," says Jordan, the Burn Center director. A clinical manager with a booming voice yelled above the din: "Everyone keep the volume down!" The quiet lasted until the first patients arrived.
Firefighter Spector and his two-man crew were among the first responders at the Pentagon. Spector saw flames shooting from the top and armies of people running in an orderly way from the building. The heavy wooden doors to corridor 5 were blown off their hinges. "There's a lady screaming in the E ring," an Army officer cried to Spector. The firefighters combed E ring for about 50 feet until a huge debris pile blocked them. They searched D ring until they hit a wall of fire. At times, they stopped, held their breath and listened, hoping to hear any sign of life. They heard only popping noises and falling ceiling tiles. "We never found a single soul," says Spector. "That will stay with me forever."
Officer Hoopii was more fortunate. He helped people straggling out of the building. One woman's skin was peeling so he hoisted her on his broad shoulders. Another woman was missing her shoes, so he carried her. Her mouth and nose were black, and she was in shock. "You are alive," he reassured her. He wanted to go deeper into the blackness. Someone yelled at him to stop. "We gotta get people," he shouted back. He was going on pure adrenaline. The smoke was suffocating, and he heard the building cracking. But he pressed on to the D ring. That's when he heard the desperate voices.
Wayne Sinclair and five coworkers crawled over the rubble and out of their office, 50 to 75 feet from where the plane hit. The hallway was so black, they lost all sense of direction. Only Hoopii's voice guided them. "Head toward my voice. Head toward my voice," he called. Huddled closely together, they followed it. Hoopii's voice led them out of the building, but Sinclair and the others never saw whom it belonged to. Hoopii was already back helping others.
John Yates was one floor up from Sinclair. Dying in a fire had been Yates's biggest fear. But he didn't let it paralyze him--instead, he started crawling. Someone grabbed his right leg. Yates heard voices at the far end of the room. He moved that way and found some coworkers. "We can't get out this way," they told him. "Yes, we can. Follow me. Just follow me," Yates insisted. They crawled over the debris and ended up in corridor 4. A couple of Navy guys grabbed him under the armpits and walked him to the center courtyard. "I could see the flesh hanging off my hands," Yates says.
Brian Birdwell was lying on the ground in the same corridor, his head on the floor. The smoke was several inches above him. But in those few inches, he could see down the corridor, so he knew which way to head. He stumbled toward A ring. Several Army guys, including a close running buddy, carried him to a triage site. He tasted jet fuel in his mouth. He was shaking violently, and medics cut off his dark green uniform pants. "It looked like I had melted," says Birdwell.
Meanwhile, 57-year-old Craig Sincock, wearing civilian clothes, had run the 2 miles back to the Pentagon from his meeting. He pitched in, offering water to workers, carrying stretchers. But he had another motive: He wanted to be as close to the crash site as possible so he could look for Cheryle, his wife of nearly 25 years, the general's secretary. He stared at the windows, trying to remember where her office was. He stayed until 11 p.m., went home, showered, slept briefly, changed into his Army uniform, and returned at 4 a.m. to help out more. At 10 a.m., he got a call, saying she was missing.
Birdwell and nine others were transported to Washington Hospital Center. Doctors had never seen this many major burn patients at once. Some were critically ill. Dr. Jordan, 57, a good-natured dynamo who likes to rebuild old Harleys in his spare time, grabbed his partner, Dr. James Jeng: "We need to get the burned skin off so it doesn't form a tourniquet." The pair opened up operating rooms and bounced between them. They essentially shaved off burned skin. The doctors cut until they found live tissue, then covered it temporarily with donated skin.
Jordan knew they would quickly go through all the skin in the freezer, so he had a nurse call the skin bank at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. "Send us what you've got," was the urgent request. Planes weren't flying, so the medical center packed 70 square feet of skin on dry ice, stuck it in three Styrofoam coolers, and drove it up in a blue Chevy van. The two drivers broke speed limits, pausing only for bathroom breaks and tacos at drive-through windows. The skin arrived 23 hours and 12 minutes later. A Cincinnati skin bank came through with 30 more square feet in 12 hours. Another in Dayton delivered more skin to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base with the order: "As soon as you're flying again, get this to Washington Hospital Center." The donated skin stabilized the wounds until the doctors could graft the patients' own skin taken from the rare spots that weren't burned. Jordan and Jeng worked 12-to-16-hour days for three weeks. They traded off spending the night at the hospital, with Jordan sleeping on his office couch and Jeng curling up on an air mattress. Since September 11, they have done 112 surgeries on nine of the patients.
Jordan sees something different about his Pentagon patients from the literally 10,000 other burn patients he has treated in 23 years: their spirit. "They have a different mind-set: `I'm not going to let it beat me.' "
Cadaver skin. You can see that in Brian Birdwell, who mouthed the words "I love you" to his wife, Mel, when he opened his eyes for the first time September 13. That same day, President Bush visited the Fort Worth native. "Colonel Birdwell," the commander in chief said as he strode into the hospital room. With tears in his eyes, the president saluted the bandaged soldier, holding it until Birdwell slowly raised his burned arm as high as he could to return the salute. Birdwell, burned over 40 percent of his body, saw himself in the mirror recently--his forehead plastered with cadaver skin, the tips of his ears singed off, the delicate skin around his eyes stretched out. His sense of humor was intact. "I think I look pretty good for a guy who just got run over by a plane," he said, grinning.
Mike Kurtz, 50, didn't recognize his wife of nearly 31 years, Louise, when she was wheeled past him in the hospital. She's the Army accountant who had been on the job only two days at the Pentagon. He thought it was a mummy when she went by. He has since been at her side every day. Louise, burned over nearly 70 percent of her body, spent more than two months in intensive care. Three weeks after Louise arrived, the doctors amputated all her fingers, which were burned badly when she tried to cover her face. Her husband agonized for the words to tell her. He was struggling through it, when he noticed she was trying to say something. "I know," she mouthed. "It's OK." Mike Kurtz broke down sobbing, because she had known for two days. "She is a pillar of strength," he says. He had bought Louise her first real ring, a 2-carat diamond, for their 30th anniversary. Now, he intends to put the stone in a necklace.
The burn patients are rebuilding their lives. John Yates's daily therapy begins when a therapist pours hot wax on his purplish hands to soften the scar. Then, he massages cream into them. And then, he bends his fingers down, holding them for a 10-count. It's excruciating, yet it's the standard therapy; it keeps burn patients' fingers flexible.
"I'm still here." Simple things are confounding. Turning doorknobs. Opening soda cans. Holding a pen. In the big picture, though, those are small things. "At least I'm still here," says Yates, grateful to have been spared. Birdwell recently went outside for the first time since September 11. He looked up at the sky in the hospital courtyard and simply said, "Thank you, God, I'm still here." He has a renewed sense of purpose: "Christ got me out of the fire. In him not taking me, that means I have a mission to complete. He'll tell me what it is in due time."
Craig Sincock lost Cheryle, the general's secretary who worked with Birdwell. He recently wrote a letter to his wife: "Thank you, Cheryle, for a quarter century of happiness, joy, friendship, and love. . . . Thank you for your patience when my ego became too big. . . . Thank you for being my best friend. . . ." The day after the attack, he went to the Family Assistance Center set up in a nearby hotel and counseled other families every day for about three weeks. "The more I worked with them, the less fear I had about what happened," he said. And then, he returned to the church he had left years ago. Now, Sincock is back at work doing long-range planning at the Pentagon. He started a Web site for the families (www.pentagonangels.net), on his own time, with his own money. Sincock says he has seen many miracles since September 11--the biggest is watching families move from grief to acceptance. "When you see where they were to where they are now, that's a true miracle," he says.
After three weeks in the hospital, Wayne Sinclair found his rescuer after the Washington Post published a short story on his escape. "You sure were my guardian angel that day," he told Officer Hoopii. "I'm just so happy you are alive," Hoopii replied. Now, they are fast friends. Hoopii is back working with a bomb-sniffing dog, but every night, he looks at the Pentagon and thinks: "There are so many people there who won't be going home, and I am so fortunate to go home."
Right after the attack, a shrine was erected at the center for Pentagon families. Beneath the photo of Jim Lynch was a box brimming with gold-wrapped Werther's Originals and a note: "Have a candy and a smile for the Candy Man."
Shortly after September 11, Trish Hackett quit her Pentagon job to join her husband, stationed with the Army in Turkey, sooner than planned. Life is too fragile, she realized, when she saw the Candy Man's name on the list of the dead. "To Jim Lynch, thank you for your bright smile and happy heart," she wrote in her eulogy of him. "I only hope you have a very large pocketful of Werther's Originals with you because I have heard they are the angels' favorite candy."
Making the Pentagon whole
The crash of American Airlines Flight 77 damaged or destroyed 2 million square feet of office space (wedges 1 and 2), of which about 400,000 square feet is being demolished and rebuilt. Crews have cleared much of the debris, and Pentagon officials intend to have people working in the refurbished space of the outermost ring by Sept. 11, 2002. One eerie fact: Ground for the Pentagon was broken on Sept. 11, 1941.
At 350 miles per hour, the Boeing 757 slammed into the first and second floors of the Pentagon's western face at a 45-degree angle between corridors 4 and 5. The plane blasted through rings E, D, and C, and parts of it were found between rings C and B. It damaged some 400 support columns, some severely and some with microfractures. The plane sliced through part of the building's recently renovated section, which was reinforced by floor-to-ceiling steel beams. Between the beams was a Kevlar-like mesh, similar to the material in bulletproof vests, designed to keep concrete from turning into shrapnel. Together, the reinforcement kept the upper floors from collapsing for about 35 minutes. The new blast-resistant windows did not shatter. The new sprinkler system kept the fire from spreading.
Demolition and reconstruction
Demolition began on October 18 and was completed November 19. Crews worked around the clock. One machine crew used an MP20, an excavator that takes 5,000-pound bites out of buildings. Only two such machines exist in the nation--the other one is in New York at ground zero. Soot and water damage were pervasive. In some offices, furniture and drywall were covered with mold from the millions of gallons of water used to fight the fire. When the plane hit wedge 1, workers were just a few days away from completing a three-year renovation of that section. Now, planners are starting over. Some limestone is coming from the southern Indiana quarries that supplied the original stone, and some charred pieces of stone are being cleaned and will be reused. Other blackened pieces will go to museums or a planned memorial. The cost of rebuilding the Pentagon is estimated at $1 billion.
[Drawing labels] Inner courtyard A ring B ring C ring D ring E ring Area of demolition C ring D ring E ring Corridor 5 Corridor 4 Support columns (E to C ring) Damaged Missing Approximately 380 feet Approximately 70 feet 1 2 3 4 5 Wedge 1 (renovated) Water and smoke Structural damage
Area of demolition E-ring collapse Blast-resistant wall 2-inch-thick blast-resistant window Steel frame Structural wall Limestone Kevlar-like material
Source: Department of Defense
Graphic by Rob Cady, Angie Cannon, and Philippe Moulier
This story appears in the December 10, 2001 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.