Six Years Later, a Tale of Two 9/11s

While New York litigates, the Pentagon has moved on

By SHARE

It's easy to forget that 9/11 happened in more than one place. Yes, there was crushing devastation in Manhattan. But there was also a plane crash in Shanksville, Pa., that claimed 40 victims, and a spectacular attack at the Pentagon killed 184, burned for three days, and almost shut down the nation's military headquarters.

The destruction in New York, where nearly 3,000 died in the fiery collapse of the World Trade Center, eclipsed the carnage elsewhere. But beyond scale, the reason New York has come to define 9/11 is that six years later, the event shows no sign of ending. After years of squabbling, construction has finally begun on a memorial and a new skyscraper, yet completion dates are still uncertain and far off. An enormous crater remains the dominant feature of lower Manhattan.

Last month's fire and the deaths of two firefighters in an adjacent building that was destroyed on 9/11—but has yet to be razed—renewed bitter fights over the plodding progress to rebuild, as well as political finger-pointing. Many of the victims' families, meanwhile, still seek solace in remains that have yet to be found (box).

At the Pentagon, by contrast, there was an immediate need to repair the damage and get back to work. Military necessity—backed by plentiful funds—was a big factor, and by the end of 2002 the Pentagon was completely rebuilt.

But the Pentagon was also a place where Americans reacted to tragedy the way many think they should react: Survivors mourned, communities mobilized, and the bereaved coped. A memorial was planned with virtually no controversy. There are few lawsuits, if any, relating to the Pentagon victims and no lingering disputes over remains.

This year, on the sixth anniversary of the attacks, the military community will honor itself with the publication of the Defense Department's official history of 9/11 at the Pentagon. The book showcases many of the tales that have become legendary around the building. Navy officers David Tarantino and David Thomas, for instance, plunged into a flaming hole and pulled out three people who probably would have died within minutes. To free one man from a mound of debris, Tarantino got on his back and leg-pressed the mass until it rose a few inches, allowing the man to wriggle out.

Dozens of people did heroic things that seemed natural. A group of military personnel darted into burning offices and saved about a dozen people before firefighters arrived to take over. "We're marines," one of them explained. "It may sound corny ... but that's something we've always been trained to do." An electrician named Matthew Morris waded through a pool of water in a smoky electrical vault to shut off mangled transformers, carrying 13,800 volts of electricity, so that rescuers wouldn't get electrocuted.

The book also records the sensation of near death, in the halting words of Christine Morrison, who worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency: "This force hit the room, instantly turning the office into an inferno hell. Everything was falling, flying, and on fire.... I was slam-dunked backward into another worker's cubicle.... I felt the heat, and I heard the sizzling of me.... I couldn't move any part of my body...I was bartering for just one breath of air." After 20 minutes, Morrison finally made it to safety, shoeless. Seven others in her office died.

There are countless stories from New York just as gripping, powerful, and tragic. But memories of the acts of ordinary people doing extraordinary things are now competing for attention with quarrels, litigation, and a measure of weariness. Ground zero may still be sacred ground, but the Pentagon was treated as a battlefield—where the military remove their dead, commemorate them, and prepare for the next battle. It's a narrative that has reached its conclusion—which means the story can now be told.