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It Was Business as Usual, Then 'Boom'
By Jim Garamone
WASHINGTON, Sept. 13, 2001 -- The "cubicle farms" at the Pentagon grew a crop of heroes following the terrorist attack on the building Sept. 11.
The Army's Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel was near the point where a hijacked Boeing 757 airliner crashed into the Pentagon. The massive five-story building is arranged in five concentric rings, named A to E from the inside ring out. In the center is a park-like courtyard. Ten corridors link the rings like spokes on a wheel.
Army Col. Roy Wallace was in a C Ring "farm" on the second floor just off Corridor 4. "We were on the phone doing a conference call when we heard this loud explosion," said Wallace, chief of the resources division at the DSCPER. "It actually knocked us out of our seats."
The ceiling collapsed and windows along the outer wall blew out toward the inside of the building. "They must have been blast windows because they didn't splinter," he said. "They blew out like a car windshield would."
Wallace and Lt. Col. Gerald Barrett, Lt. Col. Thomas Cleary III and Lt. Col. Richard Edwards began to clear co-workers away from the area.
"We got them out toward the courtyard of the Pentagon, and then we went back in to call for anybody in there to come to us," Wallace said. The smoke was so thick in the building that anyone trying to get out had to navigate by sound. "The smoke was black as pitch (with) noxious fumes, and it was rolling like a wave from the outer part of the building."
Several people came out of the smoke and went past Wallace and his comrades. "When we couldn't stand the smoke anymore, we went to the 4th corridor, at which time we saw an Army officer coming from the 'E Ring,'" Wallace said. "He fell in front of us and wasn't moving. So myself and five or six other people picked this individual up and carried him toward the center courtyard."
Wallace and others cordoned off the area where the smoke was too thick for people to pass. He and several other officers and NCOs then went to Corridor 5 to look for stragglers. The men had to duck into a bathroom and wet their T-shirts and place them over their mouths in order to breathe. The smoke grew so thick that they had to crawl along the floor. He went along the B Ring knocking on doors and got an answer at one of them. He told the folks inside how to escape.
Service members and civilians in other areas responded with remarkable calm. "We were watching the World Trade Center on the television," said a Navy officer. "When the second plane deliberately dove into the tower, someone said, 'The World Trade Center is one of the most recognizable symbols of America. We're sitting in a close second.'"
Just moments later, he said, the plane slammed into the Pentagon, his office shook and they could see billowing smoke. "We did not realize it was a plane, and we never received an official order to evacuate, but we all knew what to do," he said.
While security personnel locked up classified information, others left the area and headed for the nearest exits. "There was no panic, no running," he said. "I was amazed at how polite everyone was with everyone else." He said people helped other down the steps and went around making sure everyone was out of the offices.
Others tried to go to the affected area, and several helped those injured out to the courtyard.
Once outside, many personnel joined impromptu stretcher teams. Others, those with medical training, peeled off and began helping the injured.
Air Force Maj. Liz Rodriguez, lawyer with the Judge Advocate General office was in the Joint Staff corridor on the far side from the crash site. At first she thought the ensuing commotion was a fire drill, so she walked back toward her office -- toward the crash -- to collect her belongings. She, too, was amazed at the way people reacted.
"We tried to get out of the building via South Parking, but we couldn't," she said. "People just turned around and very politely headed for a new area."
Rodriguez went to help. She joined litter teams standing by to recover bodies. "We were never allowed in, but we just wanted to be there," she said. "We needed to help in any way."
People shared cell phones, water and food. Others ran errands for the medics and firefighters.
Rodriguez said one inspiring moment happened when firefighters finally got into the building. "One of the firefighters came out with an American flag on a broken staff," she said. "He planted it in the ground. Everyone -- medics, firefighters, military and civilians -- broke into cheers. It was like, 'The flag is frayed, but it's still here.'"
Later, a squad of Marines tenderly took the flag down and folded it, she said. "We all came to attention and saluted," she said. "Then a Marine colonel took the flag and walked it over to an Army lieutenant general who was there and presented it to him. We all knew that the area hit was an Army corridor."