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.

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Rumsfeld and his lieutenants were in a separate conference room, and the air was getting hazy there, too. They were directed to another room, off the NMCC, where the air was clearer. Rumsfeld, somehow, seemed impervious to the smoke, coughing occasionally but showing no discomfort. Myers became concerned about all the military personnel staffing the facility, who were his responsibility. "Sir," he said to Rumsfeld, "you do understand, all those people out there will stay as long as you're here," implying they might have to leave the NMCC and relocate someplace else. Rumsfeld said nothing.

An engineer sent by the Pentagon's building managers brought a device that measured the oxygen in the room. His measurements showed that oxygen levels were falling. "Within an hour, it may be difficult to breathe in here," the engineer warned.

A short while later, a colonel from the Joint Staff—wearing an olive flight suit and a handgun in a shoulder holster—arrived at the fire chiefs' command post, outside the Pentagon, to plead the case for the NMCC to remain in operation. The fire commanders were facing the biggest, most complicated fire any of them had ever seen. A searing blaze, fed by thousands of gallons of jet fuel from the plane that had struck the building, consumed an amount of office space nearly equivalent to the entire Empire State Building. In addition to the fire, the Pentagon was also a crime scene—and a war zone. Search crews still fought through flames to look for survivors. Soldiers lined up in formation, trying to force their way past firefighters, to get back into the burning building and save comrades. FBI agents desperately tried to salvage evidence as firetrucks drove over pieces of the plane and firefighters bashed through piles of flaming debris.

As the fire chiefs listened to the colonel from the Joint Staff, they were flabbergasted to learn that anybody other than firefighters was still in the building. Even more astonishing: Rumsfeld planned to open the building for business the following day.

"We've got to keep the NMCC open," the colonel stressed.

"OK," said Ed Plaugher, the fire chief for Arlington County, Va. "Do you really want your people in there making decisions, possibly illegitimate decisions, under the influence of carbon monoxide?"

The colonel gave him a puzzled look. Plaugher continued. "Carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless," he explained. "And in a hot, smoky fire, there's usually tons of carbon monoxide. One of the first side effects is, it makes you do wacky things. In house fires, people who have lived there for 50 years will try to get out by walking into a closet. Do you really want people in that situation making command and control decisions?"

The colonel paused, pondering the risks. Then he asked, "If we monitor for it, does that change the picture?"

"How many people do you have?" Plaugher asked.

The NMCC normally had a staff of over 100, but the colonel said they were operating on a stripped-down crew of fewer than 50. The two men negotiated. Plaugher began to realize that the colonel had been sent out to plead the case for a decision that Rumsfeld and his staff had already made. He wasn't going to coax the military commanders out of their bunker, no matter what. Besides, Plaugher realized, as he looked at a fighter jet that was now circling overhead, the military guys inside the building had a lot of other important things to worry about.

They worked out a rough compromise. The colonel assured Plaugher that they'd get some equipment in place, pronto, to monitor carbon monoxide levels. The fire department, meanwhile, had some spare air bottles on reserve. "Let me give you enough breathing apparatus so that if something goes wrong, you can get people out of there," Plaugher offered. "It will give you an hour's worth of breathing time, which will be enough if you have to evacuate." It was a deal. The military would continue to man their war room. And the fire crews would keep battling the fire.

Adapted from Firefight: Inside the Battle to Save the Pentagon on 9/11 by Patrick Creed and Rick Newman. Copyright © 2008, Patrick Creed and Rick Newman. Published by arrangement with Random House, New York.