ASHINGTON, Sept. 11 — A hijacked passenger plane sliced
into the Pentagon today, triggering a thunderous explosion and
fierce fires at the defense complex and killing and wounding an
unknown number of people.
The surprise terrorist assault, the first in the history of the
58-year-old building, came within an hour of the attack on the twin
towers of the World Trade Center and set off a state of emergency in
the nation's capital that swiftly shut down the government. All
federal office buildings were closed, and F-16 fighter jets and
helicopters were dispatched to police the skies.
Smoke engulfing the area, and the sight of people trained for war
fleeing in shock and fear underscored the vulnerability of the
American military. It also revealed the inability of the most
sophisticated early warning systems in the world to stop a low-tech,
tried-and-true form of terrorism: hijacking.
American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757 carrying 58 passengers and six crew members, was on a
scheduled flight from Dulles International Airport west of
Washington to Los Angeles when it was diverted and slammed into the
five-sided, five-story concrete-walled structure at about 9:30 a.m.,
when Pentagon workers are well into their workday.
More than 10 hours after the terrorist attack, Secretary of
Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld struggled to give the impression of
business-as- usual in a brief appearance in the Pentagon
He called the terrorist act a "vicious, well-coordinated, massive
attack against the United States of America."
Many of the Pentagon's more than 20,000 civilians and military
personnel were already on edge when the attack came. News of the
crashes at the trade center had shot through the corridors and it
seemed as if every office television was turned on. Military and
civilian employees watched in disbelief as smoke engulfed the two
In a macabre foreshadowing of what then happened, Mike Slater, a
former Marine, told his coworkers, "We're next."
Then the Pentagon, built to withstand terrorist attacks, shook
like a rickety roller coaster. A section of it collapsed and burned.
"It sounded like a roar," said Mr. Slater, who was 500 yards away
from where the jet slammed into the Pentagon's west side. "I knew it
was a bomb or something."
Within the last year, the Pentagon had put up shatter-reducing
Mylar sheeting to reduce the impact of a potential terrorist
Mr. Slater said he braced himself for a second explosion since he
knew there had been two airplanes that crashed into the trade center
in Lower Manhattan. Instead, blue-and- white strobe lights and
wailing sirens alerted those inside to evacuate. Evacuation orders
were also sounded over a loudspeaker. Smoke quickly filled the air,
but the lights stayed on.
Indeed, shortly after the evacuation, warnings were broadcast of
a reported second plane approaching the building, but it did not
As soon as Mr. Slater stepped outside, he saw and smelled
something uncomfortably familiar. "I saw a mass of oily smoke and
thought of the oil fields of Kuwait," he said. "There were 3,000
Americans killed in Pearl Harbor, this will be at least that many,
if not more, and I hope Congress has the guts to do something about
When the Pentagon was built as a fireproof, air-conditioned
headquarters for the American military in 16 months in the early
1940's, it was considered an engineering marvel. Even now, the
building, which has three times the floor space of the Empire State
Building and houses 24,000 employees, is considered one of the best
architectural achievements of the 20th century.
Over the years, there have been a number of terrorist bomb
threats that resulted in tightened security at the Pentagon. In
1987, a 29-year-old gunman was shot dead at one of the Pentagon's
entrances after he pulled out a gun and tried to enter an area near
the National Military Command Center. But never before, even in the
tensest days of the cold war, had there been a terrorist attack
against the Pentagon.
Mr. Rumsfeld was in his office on the third floor of the outer
ring when he heard and felt the crash on the other side of the
building. The 69- year-old former Navy pilot was jolted and rushed
to the scene. "He went outside the building and was helpful in
getting several people that were injured onto stretchers," said a
Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley. "He was out there 15
minutes or so helping the injured."
Then Mr. Rumsfeld headed to the National Military Command Center,
the secure operational nerve center below his office, even though it
was permeated with smoke. There, Mr. Rumsfeld, Gen. Richard B.
Myers, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and other top military
and civilian aides remained sequestered through the day to discuss
Police officers immediately blocked all highways and roads
leading into the Pentagon and the Metro mass transit lines were
detoured to avoid the underground station at the Pentagon and
several stations around it.
The Pentagon converted one area into a field hospital, filling it
with ambulances, fire engines and other emergency vehicles.
Search-and-rescue equipment, cranes and dog-sniffing units swarmed
the area; troops in riot gear ringed various military bases.
But throughout the day at the Pentagon building itself, rescue
workers, blocked by fire and smoke, were repeatedly thwarted in
their struggle to reach the central crash site.
Pentagon officials said that many casualties may have been
averted because the plane exploded in a newly renovated area of the
Pentagon where some offices were not yet occupied. The area had been
fitted with blast resistant windows, which may also have helped to
cushion the impact.
All children in the Pentagon's day care center, which is on the
opposite side of the building from the crash site, were
But among military personnel and civilians close to the blast,
there were stories of predictions, harrowing escapes and talk of
Marine Corps Maj. Eric Stone had just walked out of the Pentagon
after watching the coverage of the trade center attack. He recalled
telling a friend, "If I were a terrorist, this would be the second
place I would bomb."
Army Maj. Clyde Dopheide and Randy Flisak, a civilian who works
at the Army Audit Agency, had just begun a classified briefing when
the plane crashed approximately 100 yards from their office. "We saw
the fireball, and the corridor filled up with smoke in minutes." The
two men crouched to get under the smoke, evacuating the building in
just two minutes.
For Major Dopheide, fear was quickly surpassed by rage. "They
tried to kill me," he said. "We've got to go get them."
Other witnesses said the plane crash was followed by an explosion
about 15 minutes later that could be heard miles away — apparently
the sound of a large portion of the Pentagon collapsing.
The Boeing 757 crashed into the outer edge of the building
between the first and second floors, "at full power," Mr. Rumsfeld
said. It penetrated three of the five concentric rings of the
The crash was so powerful that Army Maj. Michael Heidt said he
felt the building sway where he was working in nearby Crystal City.
Mr. Heidt ran from his office to the Pentagon, and noticed that the
area of the Pentagon that was damaged was the portion that had
recently been closed for renovations. "If there is a silver lining
in this, it is that this hit the part of the Pentagon under
renovations where the fewest people were working," he said.
Tom Joyce, a Navy captain, was reading at his desk on the fifth
floor in the building's fifth wing, when the plane hit. The impact
knocked him out of his chair. "The whole building shook," Captain
Joyce said. "Smoke started coming into the building."
Pentagon personnel said the evacuation from the building was
orderly. People filed out and were told to leave a one-mile buffer
between them and the building. Some walked for miles to get home.
Others hitched a ride. Still others took the Metro or bus. "We are
trained not to panic," Navy Capt. Leigh Method said. "There were
people upset, mostly civilians."
By 7 p.m., the fire was still burning, but under control,
according to Secretary Thomas White of the Army. Mr. Rumsfeld said
it was impossible to calculate how many were dead or wounded in the
crash, but added somberly, "It will not be a few."
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has secured the site. Since
the attack, firefighters have been working from the outside, and the
extent of the damage is still not clear.