Firefight: Inside the Battle to Save the Pentagon on 9/11
Reviewed by John N. Maclean
It took only eight-tenths of a second for American Airlines Flight 77 to strike the outer wall of the Pentagon, penetrate the concentric E, D and C Rings, collapse upon itself like an accordion and ignite chaos. The jet spewed thousands of gallons of fuel through hallways, offices and meeting rooms inside the nation’s premier defense installation — into every place that airborne mist could go on the wings of an enormous shock wave. A series of explosions sent an ominous mushroom-shaped cloud into the air.
The aircraft had punched a hole 90 feet wide at the entry point, then compressed into a bullet-like shape and burrowed 310 feet, or about twice its length, into the building. Its speed decelerated from 530 miles an hour to zero in less than a second. The bodies of the five hijackers were found about 100 feet from the point of impact; most of the bodies of the 59 passengers and crew, who had been herded to the rear of the plane, carried farther into the building. The final death toll included 125 Pentagon employees.
Because the fire got under a thick slab of concrete covering the roof, flames burned for three more days. The repercussions of that day, though, will be felt for decades. In the same way that a previous generation remembers the Kennedy assassination, many Washingtonians will forever remember where they were standing, what they were doing and thinking, when they learned of the Pentagon attack and felt the shock of a terrible vulnerability.
The Pentagon attack understandably has received less attention than the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in Manhattan and United Airlines Flight 93 in a grassy field in Pennsylvania; the first was far more catastrophic, the second a more compact drama. After all, the Pentagon opened for business the next day, Sept. 12. For the onlooker, only one wedge of the Pentagon’s five sections appeared to be involved, though about 40 percent of the building eventually received damage and smoke invaded every cranny.
Yet vital facilities were compromised. It took hours for a secret backup facility to be made operational to replace the destroyed National Military Command Center. Top secret documents were strewn everywhere, prompting fears that enemy agents would scoop them up. Flames came close to destroying equipment on the roof whose loss would have shut down the entire building.
The direst scenarios did not come to pass, however, thanks to hundreds of firefighters, medics, FBI agents and military and civilian personnel. Heroes came in all shapes and sizes, from a vintage fire truck small enough to squeeze into the Pentagon’s central courtyard to generals willing to forget their stars. Most people run from fire. At the Pentagon, military and civilian personnel rushed into the building to save others and protect vital information. A four-star Army general with 20 soldiers at his back got into a wrestling match with a firefighter who had been ordered to keep people out of the building. The firefighter won, and the general apologized. Capt. Jennifer Glidewell, an Army nurse at a Pentagon clinic, went to the central courtyard as it began to fill with wounded and found herself, momentarily, the ranking medical officer. She took charge, but after a few minutes a three-star Air Force general approached. He was a doctor, he told the captain, and asked where she needed him.
There were screw-ups, of course. D.C. Fire Department officials sent too much equipment, established separate command facilities and then ducked out early. But after three grueling days, the firefighters had saved the Pentagon — and done the job safely: Not one emergency worker was seriously injured.
It took five years for authors Patrick Creed, a volunteer firefighter and Army officer, and Rick Newman, a writer for U.S. News and World Report, to pull together this story. Combing public records and conducting 150 interviews, Creed and Newman have done a monumental reporting job. Firefight tells the tale moment by moment through the accounts of dozens of participants and eye-witnesses. The book needed an editor with a sharper blue pencil — it’s too long, and the writing can be monotonous. Not unlike the heroes whose stories they tell, however, Creed and Newman faced a daunting challenge, rose to the occasion and rescued a piece of history from the ashes.
Copyright 2008, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.