Five terrorists seized American Airlines Flight 77 as it traveled from Dulles International Airport (outside Washington, D.C.) to Los Angeles, California, and they crashed it into the Pentagon. The five hijackers-Hani Hanjour, Nawaf al-Hazmi, Salem al-Hazmi, Khalid al-Mihdhar, and Majed Moqued-had little trouble passing through the Dulles checkpoint with weapons that they subsequently used to take over the aircraft. Once seated in the first-class section, they seized control of the aircraft shortly after takeoff. As air traffic controllers at Dulles tried to regain contact with the airliner, the hijackers redirected the aircraft toward the Washington, D.C., area. A request was made to a U.S. Air Force transport for a visual sighting, and the pilot replied that he had the airliner in sight. An air traffic controller asked the C-130 pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Steve O'Brien, to monitor the airliner. He reported that the airliner was moving low and fast, and then he watched it crash into the west side of the Pentagon. The flight hit at first-floor level and penetrated three of the five rings of that section of the Pentagon.
The personnel at the Pentagon had no warning of the approaching aircraft. Many of the Pentagon workers were watching news footage on TV of the attacks on the World Trade Center complex. Several of the survivors remarked later that they talked about how vulnerable the Pentagon was to a similar type of attack. Suddenly there was a tremendous explosion. Those not killed or injured in the original explosion had to face fire and reduced visibility from the smoke. Most of those working in the Pentagon were evacuated, but those trapped in the west side of the building were unable to escape.
The key to survival was finding a safe route out of the building. Most of the rescues of the trapped or incapacitated took place in the first half-hour after the attack. Both military personnel and civilians aided hundreds of individuals badly shaken or injured. This help enabled many people to escape the building, keeping the casualty rate relatively low. Once firefighters and other professional rescue workers arrived, they began to discourage active participation by nonprofessionals because it was simply too dangerous entering a building where there were still fires and structural collapses.
Firefighting teams from the Arlington County Fire Department and other area fire departments responded to the emergency as soon as they heard the news. News of the attack came to the Arlington County Emergency Communications Center (ECC), which began broadcasting the news of the attack to various agencies and fire departments. On arriving at the Pentagon, the firefighters began fighting the fire and rescuing some of those who were trapped. Many of those rescued were severely burned. Although firefighting at the Pentagon was much easier than at the World Trade Center complex because of the Pentagon's fewer number of floors, difficulties were caused by the high-temperature fire from burning aviation fuel. It took firefighters nearly five hours to put out the fire feeding on the aviation fuel and the burning building. As soon as the fire and smoke subsided, a general search for survivors took place. There were no survivors found. Because many of the offices on the west side were undergoing renovation, the number of casualties was lower than it would have been if the offices had been occupied. The blast and fire killed 128 Pentagon personnel as well as the crew and passengers of Flight 77.
The evacuation process and firefighting were interrupted several times because of warnings about possible other airliner attacks. Most serious of these warnings concerned United Airlines Flight 93 approaching the Washington, D.C., area. At each warning the Pentagon had to be evacuated. Despite these interruptions, by the end of the day on September 12 the fires had been contained.
It took 10 days after the attack for all human remains to be removed from the Pentagon. A body-recovery team of one or more Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents, one or two Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) representatives, a photographer, and a four-body carrier unit from the 3rd Infantry Regiment (Old Guard) looked for remains. Each body or body part was photographed at the site. Later, cadaver-sniffing dogs were brought in to help the body-recovery teams.
Stephen E. Atkins
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