Dennis Johnson, it turned out, had been in a conference room in the Army's personnel directorate on the second floor of the five-story structure, along with 10 others, when the plane sliced through the building one floor below them. Nine of the people in the meeting crawled to safety, through dense smoke and smashed furniture. But Johnson and another Army officer, Maj. Stephen Long, got trapped and died. "I kept wondering, why didn't my husband make it out?" Joyce says.
Pentagon officials were interested in similar questions—but for different reasons. A task force of engineers began a detailed analysis of how the crash had affected the building, to help determine ways to make the Pentagon safer and fortify it against other possible attacks. They had much more to work with than forensic experts in New York, where the buildings were gone. Once the bodies had been removed from the Pentagon, and mountains of debris carted out, teams of engineers analyzed every support column, floor slab, beam, and girder in the crash zone. The FBI, responsible for documenting remains, marked the location of every body or body part on a floor plan of the Pentagon. Autopsy results indicated whether each victim died immediately of causes such as "fragmentation" or "blunt force injuries," or succumbed to smoke inhalation some time after the crash.
Though it wasn't the original purpose of the analysis, the forensic evidence began to tell a dramatic tale of death and survival in the frantic minutes following the crash of Flight 77. "Some areas were survivable, but people died," says Georgine Glatz, chief engineer for the Pentagon Renovation Program. "Yet other areas were not survivable, and people lived." Eleven Defense Intelligence Agency employees, for instance, managed to escape from an office shattered by a blast wave, after struggling for nearly 30 minutes in toxic smoke and temperatures approaching 1,000 degrees. The office should have been a death trap, yet they got out. In another area, a Navy officer who was in the direct path of the airplane somehow survived, even though everyone around him died. "He believes, and so does my Task Force, that near miracles actually happened under the very roof of the Pentagon," Glatz wrote in a report analyzing the damage.
But Dennis Johnson and Stephen Long didn't get the benefit of a miracle. As the weeks wore on, Joyce Johnson received conflicting reports about what had happened to her husband. Some told her he died instantly, from the initial fireball. But that didn't make sense, since most of the others in the conference room got out, and she figured they were just trying to tell her what they thought she wanted to hear. When she pressed, others said it might have been falling debris that killed her husband, or smoke inhalation.
Some of the people in the support group urged her to stop asking what happened and just accept that her husband was gone. But she needed to know: The cause of death might help explain why he hadn't escaped. Early in 2002, Joyce decided to ask for her husband's autopsy report. It arrived, marked with warnings that said "do not open" and "graphic material." She put it away for awhile, unopened, then awoke one morning at 5 and decided it was the right day to look at the report. The cause of death was smoke inhalation. And the smoke was deep in Dennis Johnson's stomach. That meant he had lived for maybe 10 or 20 minutes after the impact, crawling in the wreckage, trying to escape. "It was awful to know," she says.
The answer to one question raised others. If her husband had at least 10 minutes to get out, why didn't he? Joyce's persistence led her to Glatz. The engineer explained everything she could figure out based on the evidence she had. The bodies of Dennis Johnson and Stephen Long had been found side by side in the Pentagon's E ring—the outermost of five concentric hallways that circle the building—close to the spot where Flight 77 hit the building. In an office nearby, 13 others, including Army Lt. Gen. Tim Maude, had been killed by the impact of the crash. It appeared that Johnson and Long had left the conference room with the others, only to get separated in the dark and confusion. Instead of turning left toward the interior of the building—and safety—they had turned right and then opened a door that led to the E ring.