I wrote this letter to friends after assisting with the recovery effort at the Pentagon following the 9/11 attacks.
I am writing this letter and sending it to all of my friends, mainly to say a few things about what I saw and experienced this weekend while working at the Pentagon. As everyone knows, the Pentagon was hit hard by that airplane and that SW section of E, D, and C rings are pretty torn up. Unable to continue watching it on TV, this Friday I took off early from work, put on my boots and cammies, and went to the Pentagon to offer my services. I worked there through Sunday, assisting as best I could.
I pulled into the parking lot on Friday at noon, and used my NCR badge to get in and park. The camp at the site is tremendous and starts, basically, in the parking lot. In the parking lot is a huge mess/galley tent staffed by volunteer workers. They are cooking meals for those working at the site 24 hours a day. Right next to them is a mobile McDonald’s kitchen and one from Burger King as well. They are just cranking out bags of food ‘round the clock. I made my way to the FBI guards and was directed to the badging tent. They checked my ID, took my picture, and five minutes later I had a Pentagon crash site ID card. I first took a stroll around the camp and tried to identify all of the various units and decide which would most benefit from my help – but it was pretty chaotic and I could barely tell who was who. Finally I just decided to report to the Incident command post and get assigned. The incident commander knew what a Seabee was and said “Construction guy? I’ve got a job for you, follow me.” And so I did. He took me to the Pentagon Renovation Contractors, who were now providing any engineering support to the recovery effort. Their foreman said he could definitely use me, sent me over to his main office to let their company know I’d be working with them for the weekend, and said to hurry back because he had some stuff to do. So, I took off and returned an hour later blessed to work, and started working.
The ground out there is so marshy (they’ve been building it up for years, but it’s just weak out there) that a huge effort was underway to keep equipment from sinking any further into the mud. Also, new phone cable was getting laid down everywhere (Verizon was laying the phone wire down, all of it gratis). So I got assigned to help with those efforts. We laid down probably a half mile of gravel road and buried some conduit line underneath that for the phone wires to go. Then we got to the main area where you see many cranes now when you look on the TV. Well, that area was all mud and muck, and the equipment was barely supported by plywood sheets laid down under the outriggers and wheels. We laid down a bunch of filter fabric and then the Marines showed up out of nowhere. They had a ton of old fiberglass matting that they dug out of somewhere and had loaded it up and driven from Quantico to see if it could help. I told ‘em hell yeah and we started laying it down over the fabric that was already sinking into the marsh. Shortly after that dump trucks of gravel started showing up and we just covered it all, about an acre’s worth, in four inches of rough stone – all, including drivers and equipment, donated. After that was done, we started shifting equipment around and getting everything on much more stable footing.
Then I ran into one of the Army engineering/Rescue teams. Their Sergeant First Class (SFC Brown) heard that I was a Seabee and said to come on over and put a suit on. Soon after that he and I were inside the building on the 2nd floor trying to figure out how we were going to shore up four columns. So we figured out how best to get the wood up there (through one of the windows), which areas were safe enough to handle the weight of the wood stockpiles, and what we needed to cut out of the way to get to what we needed to get (the columns were still surrounded by pipes, conduit, and metal studs). The rest of the team showed up, SFC, their 1st LT, another staff sergeant, and I had a power pow-wow with the FEMA structural engineer, and then we all got to work. First, we had to clear areas around the bodies so we could get them removed with minimum disturbance (three were right at the base of a column we needed to shore) and then a team came to remove them. While that was happening, we were clearing debris and making ourselves a work space and some clear paths to travel.
The area we were working was right to the left of the big collapsed section that you see on TV. It had been hit terribly hard by the jet and by the resulting fire. Everything there had been burned to ash – the only things left intact were the metal furnishings (safes, light fixtures, metal studs, ductwork) everything else was completely burned away. That, combined with the water from the sprinklers and the fire hoses, made everything look like it was covered in gray mud, a couple of inches deep. The victims were almost unrecognizable as human. They were just piles of black ash in a mass of gray ash covered debris – not even human shaped. To take them out we scooped them into body bags and took them out by stretcher – this was more for the appearance to those working and watching outside the building and for respect for the dead. None of us were cold hearted enough to simply shovel them into 5 gallon buckets. I must say that the FBI and ATF teams took great care to document the victims for later identification. Each person’s remains were logged by location, given a number, a photo was taken, and then they were carried out and taken to the mortuary. Since there was nothing left to identify them with, they were researched and identified by their location in the office in which they were found. If any usable DNA could be found, they were going to try and use that.
The sight of those remains was a horror that will be burned in my memory. I was trained for disaster stuff when in Battalion, but this was the first time seeing it for real – and it is a sight that no amount of training can prepare you for. I found myself staring at the first one I had seen, it took me a bit to be able to move my eyes elsewhere. But I had known going in that I would see things I didn’t really want to see, but there was a job to do and I had to help do it. Even so, my eyes still found their way back to that first victim whenever I walked past. That nameless, faceless, pile of ash… had that been an officer, and enlisted, a civilian, a man, a woman, family? I don’t know, I’ll never know. I had heard that the first day they had been able to go in some of the victims had not been so vaporized – one of the Army rescue team members had lost it and hadn’t returned. Probably wouldn’t return. I’m glad that I didn’t see what that young sergeant had seen. The things I saw were bad enough. It wasn’t a particularly gruesome sight on it’s own, it’s just when you realize that that is all that’s left of that person’s life – a couple of scoop fulls of black ash.
At midnight on Friday they sounded the all clear alert – which signaled an immediate evacuation of the building. This happened a couple of times each shift, as someone found or heard something that caused us to doubt the strength of the structure. At this point I had been working for 16 hours, 12 of which at the site, and I told the guys I needed to head home for sleep, since we didn’t know when we would be able to go back in, and that I would see them the next night.
When I got home that night I couldn’t sleep right away, so I stayed up watching news footage and re-runs on TV, drinking a couple of glasses of juice to re-hydrate. I remember just sitting there on my couch, thinking that I wasn’t really angry. I wasn’t sad. I was just resolute. I realized at that moment that the tragedy of this event had been worn out of me, and that now I was just committed to the fact that we are now at war and that, as we used to say, there’s just a guy out there that needs killing. I knew this wouldn’t stop at Bin Laden’s death, that this is something that is going to continue for the next few years, and may even develop into WW3, but it was going to have to happen. No act of this magnitude could go unpunished and those charred piles of ash that had once been Naval officers and their staffs, needed and deserved justice.
Saturday at 8 AM I returned to the site for my shift with the contractors (they worked three 8 hour shifts and I stayed with Edwin, the foreman I first met, from 8 AM to 4PM, at which time I migrated to the ARMY rescue teams till about midnight). There were still some road/turf reinforcement issues to resolve, so I spent time during the morning to work on that. Then things got pretty slow. Around 7PM we moved in heavy equipment and started pulling down the collapsed area. The plan was to pull some debris down, drag it out, have the dogs go over it to check for any human remains, then load it into containers to be taken to the FBI evidence area (they searched through every ounce of rubble recovered from the building to look for pieces of the airplane and whatever other evidence they needed). A large chunk of the roof section slid down while they were tugging it and slammed into the other section of building – the section we had spent so much time reinforcing. A halt was called and engineers were sent in to check the columns and see if we needed to re-shore them. Some civilian rescue workers then entered the building and checked everything – those were some gutsy guys. They had to go deep into the structure to check everything, and my hand goes out to them, that took some guts. Two hours later they decided to continue on with that effort. Aside from those engineers, no one went into the building that night – too dangerous to do that while ripping out that debris. So I talked with the equipment contractors and SFC Brown and we worked out a plan to continue the debris removal. I wanted to make sure that the Army guys were involved with the effort – it’s our house after all, and it is very hard for us military members to stand by and watch it come down. So the crane dragged down the debris and spread it out, the Arlington Fire and Rescue dogs searched it, then the Army
moved it out and loaded it into containers with their loader. We all stayed and stood there for a while, watching the giant claw do it’s work. The cutting crew was cutting and stacking 4×4 timbers in various lengths to get ready for another round of shoring once the crane was done, the sound of chainsaws was loud in the air. There was a search team up in a basket hanging from the tallest crane, peering at the wreckage for any sign of life, remains, or failure of the structure. The shadows were thick in one area and the FEMA head rigger grabbed me and asked if I could get him some more light. Eager for something to do, I found a light plant not in use at the far side of the camp, got a truck, had it dragged over, prepped a spot for it and lit it off. At that point, all I could really do was watch, staying within easy reach of the head rigger in case he needed any more engineering support that I could get him. The night went long as we watched the structure get pulled down, piece by piece. Again, I left at midnight to return the next morning for my 8AM shift.
Sunday at 8 AM was a hotbed of activity. The crane had some hydraulic problems, new security fence had to be put up, an inner ring of security was set up, and all non-essential personnel in the camps were getting scrubbed. Also, an electrical supply warehouse had opened their doors to the recovery effort and we needed some trucks. So I got some trucks from the Army in exchange for some drop lights for their tents, walked the crane repair guy through the badging process, and found some fence material from somewhere to close off one of the gates. The crane was continuing to tear down debris and everything was set. At this point, I realized, this stopped being a rescue job and became a construction job. There were still some remains to be retrieved from some areas, but for the most part it was now focused on clearing and rebuilding. The FBI was getting rid of elements in the camp that didn’t need to be there and we were building them areas outside the main site area for them to set up shop. All the while that giant ripper crane was clearing that awful scar off the face of our Pentagon.
I saw on the TV today that much of the fallen debris has been removed and you can see into the next ring now. The plane penetrated all the way to C-Ring. They say that the remains of most of the passengers will be between C and D rings. I don’t think any of them have been removed yet.
While I was there working, I remember being struck with the enormity of the support from the community. Right after it happened, I’m told that Home Depot, hauling companies, construction firms, everyone sent reps saying what they could provide and that it was at no cost. While we were there, the Salvation Army and Red Cross volunteers were a godsend. I was completely blown away.
I remember this girl with the Salvation Army, she was driving around on a golf cart with coffee and water and snacks. I’d see her around the site and she’d be asking if anyone wanted coffee or water. She asked it with such a need to help, you know? She knew she didn’t have any other skills to offer, really, but she could take care of us and that was what she was going to do. She brought me some water and a bite to eat – fruit or something, I don’t remember – and I thanked her. She stopped and looked at me a second and said “thank you for all you’re doing.” She said it with such a heartfelt tone. I had heard her say it around the camp that night to a couple of people, each time with that intensity. It was inspiring and made me want to work harder to live up to that intensity of feeling.
I walked by a tent looking for the Verizon guys and came across Cingulair Wireless. They had set up a tent and were handing out cell phones and batteries, telling us to just keep using it until it was over – no bill, no charges, as soon as the battery is dead, we’ll give you a fresh one. We had a generator break down in the middle of the night – it lit the interior of the structure for the teams working inside. A guy showed up in no time and I had to get him into the camp. He talked so strongly about his father who had served in WWII and his brother in Vietnam. He knew he was too old to fight now, he had just celebrated his 35th wedding anniversary, but he swore he’d fix that generator and get us back in action in no time, and he did.
It amazed me the amount of support that we had out there. Food was everywhere in abundance, clothes, underwear, socks, sweatshirts. All of it donated from somewhere in the community and funneled to us through the Salvation Army. The Red Cross had counselors, med techs, and general helpers everywhere wearing their little “Red Cross Disaster Volunteer” jacket things. Sleeping tents had been set up for those who had no place to rest, hotel rooms were freed up for the people who came from afar – all gratis, I’m told.
The way the DC community came together over this past week was pretty incredible, and patriotic in a way that the flag and the anthem have never been. This was the spirit of America personified in the faces, tears, and sweat of all these people that had gathered together to help each other. All of these people, coming together – they are the real heroes. They are the ones who inspire us in the military and who remind us what we are fighting for. I’ve never been so proud to be an American as I was this weekend, working alongside those people to recover those victims and to rebuild that proud structure. I found myself thinking: if only I could do more.
Now I have returned to work and am sorting things out on how to get the fleet ready for what it has to do. I’ll be on the road again soon, probably will be in and out for a while. In the meantime, the efforts at the Pentagon and in New York will continue, the remaining victims will be recovered, the structures will be cleared and re-built and we will be at war with these craven terrorists. I don’t know really what the next few months and possibly years will bring, but after this weekend, I am even more certain that we will face it together as a nation of patriots and heroes.