Pentagon 'open for business' despite terrorist air attack
By BARRIE MCKENNA
Thursday, September 13, 2001
WASHINGTON -- The fortress-like Pentagon, a symbol worldwide of U.S. military invincibility, lay battered and smouldering yesterday -- but unbowed.
With police helicopters and the occasional jet fighter overhead, thousands of U.S. military personnel reported for duty a day after a hijacked American Airlines Boeing 757 crashed through its west wall, setting the building ablaze and killing scores of people.
"The Department of Defense is open for business," said Victoria Clarke, assistant secretary of the department. "We're here, we're operating and we're functioning very well." But it was hardly business as usual.
Hundreds of firefighters continued to battle stubborn fires until mid-morning, more than 24 hours after the jet smashed a gaping hole in the sprawling five-storey complex across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., and set it ablaze.
Convoys of military vehicles, police and rescue personnel set up a huge armed camp. On a grassy embankment nearby, dozens of FBI agents combed the ground looking for evidence.
In the parking lot, emergency personnel erected a makeshift morgue and field hospital.
Late in the afternoon, U.S. President George W. Bush arrived to survey the damage to the military nerve centre, where the smell of smoke still hangs heavy in blacked-out hallways and large sections are still flooded and without power. Small pieces of the Boeing 757, including part of the nose, are strewn inside the enormous hole created when the 48-metre, twin-engine jet pierced two of the Pentagon's five concentric rings.
On a normal day, more than 23,000 civilian and military workers, including about a half-dozen Canadians, work at the Pentagon. Officials would not say how many had returned to work, but even as the fire burned early yesterday, people poured back to work, often sharing office space in parts of the building left untouched.
About 200 emergency military staff worked around the clock and through the worst of the fire.
Around midday, the Pentagon ordered the building evacuated, only to rescind the command minutes later, saying it had been a false alarm. Confused employees headed for the parking lot.
Long an imposing symbol of fortress America, the Pentagon was built in 1943 for $83-million (U.S.) to house the swelling military establishment. The neo-classical concrete structure covers 11.7 hectares and has 28 kilometres of hallways. It was part-way through a multibillion-dollar renovation when the crash occurred.
That work apparently saved scores of lives. The section hit had just been refurbished, and many of its occupants had yet to return.
The Pentagon continues to refuse to say how many people were killed. Officials yesterday backtracked from early estimates that as many as 800 may have perished, saying they had "no confidence" in those numbers. It now appears that perhaps 200 people are dead or missing, plus the 64 passengers and crew members who were aboard the jet.
Among those with serious injuries is Louise Kurtz, an army accountant. Tuesday was her second day on the job.
She is in a Washington hospital being treated for burns on 70 per cent of her body.
"I didn't recognize my wife of 31 years . . ." said her husband, Michael Kurtz. "I saw a person who looked like a mummy. I'm mortified and shocked, like the rest of the country."
At the time of the crash, a handful of Canadians were in the building, but a Canadian government official said that "to the best of my knowledge" none is among the dead or injured.
In a surprising development yesterday, White House officials disclosed that the Pentagon may not have been the primary target of the attack.
Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said there is "credible evidence" that the plane was headed for the White House, then banked sharply and headed toward the Pentagon.
He refused to elaborate.