The door was less than 100 feet from the conference room. At least one other person had opened the door, seen fireballs blazing down the hallway, then slammed it shut and gone the other way. But Glatz knew from interviews with the DIA survivors that the thick, toxic smoke didn't just reduce visibility to zero; it also dramatically slowed the brain's reaction time. It could easily have taken the two men 15 minutes to get to the door, especially if they had to crawl on the floor and feel around to find it. And once through that door, their fate was sealed: Fire consumed the hallway in both directions.
Joyce began to realize she might never know why her husband turned right, toward the fire, instead of left, toward safety. Some Army colleagues pressed for a valor award for Johnson, Long, and others, believing they were the types of soldiers who would have plunged deeper into danger, to save others. But the only people who knew for sure were dead, and without proof, there could be no award.
Then Joyce learned another detail: Stephen Long had recently undergone arthroscopic knee surgery. That raised another possibility. "I believe he was trying to help a comrade get out of the building," she says. "There's no way to get 100 percent proof, but that's what I have to believe."
Stephen Long's family prefers another explanation. Long's former wife, Tina, says her husband had nearly recovered from surgery by 9/11 and had biked 10 miles just two days before. Long worked in a separate building and had walked without crutches to the meeting. And he was an Army Ranger who had broken his back in a helicopter crash during the invasion of Grenada yet pulled himself from the wreckage and completed the mission. "Steve was the soldier that any other soldier would want beside him," says Nancy Burcham, Long's sister.
Burcham thinks her brother must have sprung into action, as he did when pinned under the burning helicopter, and gone looking for others to rescue. There were, in fact, many victims down the hallway, in the direction the two men went. And like Johnson, Long lived long enough to mount a rescue effort.
Some closure. Pentagon officials, however, have never been able to explain why Long and Johnson went where they did. So family members have filled in the blanks in ways they can live with. Nancy Burcham will be standing beside her brother's bench on September 11, convinced he died a hero. "I think he went back in trying to save people," she says.
After dealing with her husband's autopsy report, Joyce Johnson decided to get a master's degree in thanatology, the study of dying and grieving, and now she works with grieving children. Her daughter Cassie, now 23, just got married. Dennis's father, Robert, walked her down the aisle.
Joyce and her family have already visited Dennis's bench at the memorial, gazing into the E ring offices adjacent to the spot where husband, father, brother, and son died. Joyce and her daughter Dawn will be there on September 11, too, when each victim's name will be read aloud, followed by the ringing of a bell—a variation on the annual recitation of victims' names in New York. Joyce knows that when they get to Dennis M. Johnson, all of the sadness will rise, but that there might be a kind of relief, too. Because he will have a place. Even if it's not the place she wants, next to her.
Rick Newman is coauthor of Firefight: Inside the Battle to Save the Pentagon on 9/11 (Ballantine, 2008). An excerpt is at usnews.com/firefight.