Fighting the Pentagon Inferno

From "Firefight: Inside the Battle to Save the Pentagon on 9/11"

The destroyed section of the Pentagon after the terrorist attack of September 11. The US Capitol is on the left, in the background.

The destroyed section of the Pentagon after the terrorist attack of September 11.

By and SHARE

His own building was burning. Lower Manhattan, too. But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld knew little else about what was happening to America as he huddled with his brain trust near the National Military Command Center, deep inside the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

When word had first started to circulate about a plane hitting the World Trade Center in New York, Joint Staff officers at the Pentagon grew anxious. When a second plane struck, there was no doubt about it—a terrorist attack was underway. Then came something even more unthinkable: a huge explosion on the western side of the Pentagon, followed by a massive inferno. The nation's military headquarters was under attack, too.

As flames roared and security officials shouted evacuation orders, thousands of people fled the Pentagon. But others raced to their duty stations inside the NMCC, the military's highly secure "nerve center." Above it, in a suite of rooms known as the Executive Support Center—the ESC—Rumsfeld headlined a group of generals, admirals, and other military leaders confounded by the sketchy information they were getting. A second plane was barreling toward Washington, possibly headed for the Pentagon—a follow-on attack, just like in New York. There were reports that the State Department had been attacked and that out in Colorado, several cargo trucks, possibly packed with explosives, were speeding toward Cheyenne Mountain, where NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, was based.

Meanwhile, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz had grudgingly left the Pentagon on a helicopter, headed for Site R, the secret backup facility in the Maryland woods. Site R would be the military's primary command center if something managed to take down the Pentagon. A skeleton crew usually manned the facility, but bringing it fully online was more complicated than just flipping a switch. It would take a couple of hours, at least, to get a complete staff in place and test all the communications links to the Pentagon, the White House, and the rest of government. Until all the communications links were live, the NMCC represented a single point of failure in the military chain of command.

A secure videoteleconference was underway in the NMCC, connecting the Pentagon, the White House situation room, and the bunker beneath the White House. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, spoke frequently with Vice President Dick Cheney, who was in the bunker. President Bush, on Air Force One, came on the teleconference occasionally, along with officials at NORAD and the National Security Council.

Cheney had already authorized the military to shoot down any other hijacked aircraft, and there were vigorous efforts underway to get fighter jets in the air over major cities. Plenty of fighters were available at bases around the country. But few were prepared for live-fire missions; arming the fighters with missiles and other weaponry was taking longer than anybody would like.

There were a variety of other problems. Vice Adm. Tom Wilson, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, reminded Rumsfeld and others in the conference room that for the last several days, the Russians had been conducting probing missions to test U.S. air defenses. They'd send Bear bombers flying toward Alaska, to see how long it took American AWACS surveillance planes to react, then turn around just before entering U.S. airspace. It was a typical cat-and-mouse game between the Russians and the Americans. Except NORAD was now on hair-trigger alert, and any suspicious aircraft might be treated as hostile and shot down. "Somebody needs to call the Russian Embassy and tell them to knock that shit off," Wilson said.

"Do it," Rumsfeld ordered.

As military leaders grappled with the unfolding national catastrophe, smoke began to permeate the NMCC. The complex was on the other side of the Pentagon, away from the fire; when the plane had hit the building's western wall, people in the NMCC had felt nothing except a strange shudder, like a freight elevator making a hard landing in the shaft. But as the fire raged—so hot that water from fire hoses evaporated before even hitting the flames—smoke spread throughout the entire building. In the NMCC, eyes were watering, and noses running.