'I can't get to anyone I love. I hate this'
By BARRIE MCKENNA AND JOHN IBBITSON
With a report from Stephanie Levitz
Wednesday, September 12, 2001
WASHINGTON -- It was like a scene from the movie Independence Day.
Panic, then shock, gripped the U.S. capital yesterday after a hijacked American Airlines Boeing 757 plowed into the Pentagon -- a global symbol of the country's military might.
Reuben Pemberton was travelling northbound on Highway 395, heading into the downtown, when "I heard a flyover, like a jet, a plane, really low. . . .
"Next thing I know, I turn to my left, and heard an explosion, saw the explosion. I was freaking out. Everyone on the highway was kind of just stunned."
John Daly, 27, who works in the Pentagon office of legislative affairs, said: "There was a bang, and a rumble and we all kind of looked at each other, and I don't think anybody doubted for a moment what it was, and they sort of gathered everybody up and said, 'We're getting the hell out of there.' "
F-16 jet fighters darted across the sky, emergency sirens rang out and government workers fled the city core by the hundreds of thousands, causing traffic gridlock.
Around the White House, machine-gun-wielding secret service agents in paramilitary dress and gas masks scurried about, setting up a wide security perimeter. It and all other federal building, including dozens of national monuments and museums, were evacuated and sealed off.
Within minutes of the attack, workers in the Pentagon were asking angrily how one of the world's most secure buildings could have been struck more than half an hour after the first attacks in New York.
"We have air defences. What were they doing?" asked one air force officer, who did not want to be named.
At 10:26 a.m., police cars began racing through parking lots adjacent to the building, warning workers to move farther away. "There's another aircraft coming," one police officer shouted.
Even so, people lingered at the scene. Managers and officers consulted check lists, attempting to verify from co-workers who had and had not been seen.
As flames and black smoke billowed from the building, police ordered two construction workers to move farther away. "Please, three of our men are missing. They worked there," one man pleaded. He needed to be as close to the building as possible in hopes he could reach his co-workers by walkie-talkie. The police officer nodded and moved his patrol car away.
Elsewhere, convoys of military vehicles raced through city streets.
By late morning, Washington had become a virtual ghost town. Stores, banks, schools and most offices closed. Officials temporarily barricaded most highways and bridges leading into the city to allow emergency vehicles and ambulances access to the city.
Declaring a state of emergency, Washington Mayor Anthony Williams said the apparent terrorist attack may force officials to rethink a long-standing tradition of open public access.
The neighbouring states of Virginia, where the Pentagon is located, and Maryland also declared states of emergency.
The Pentagon is a sprawling complex built during the Second World War on the banks of the Potomac River to house the burgeoning U.S. military establishment. Its 23,000 military and civilian employees streamed out on foot as smoke and flames shot out of a hole where the airliner sliced through the structure.
By late yesterday, it was unclear how many people died at the Pentagon. The plane, which took off from Dulles Airport bound for Los Angeles, had 58 passengers and five crew members.
Accustomed to regular evacuations and other emergency drills, personnel streamed out of the building in orderly fashion.
One man, who refused to give his name, said he was in his office with other workers watching the carnage in New York on television when there was a loud explosion nearby that broke glass and threw several people in his office to the floor.
"It didn't knock me down, but it knocked a lot of people down. There was a lot of people, a lot of blood. Some people were hurt. We all just walked out."
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was in his office when the plane hit, went outside and helped several of the injured onto stretchers, before retreating back into the underground National Military Command Center.
Workers inside said they had less than a minute's warning of the attack, which came less than an hour after the first of two planes crashed into the twin towers of New York City's World Trade Center.
"We got a call. Another plane had been hijacked from Boston," said another Pentagon employee, who declined to be identified. "They were scrambling fighters. Thirty seconds later, the building rocked."
At 10:10 a.m., a loud rumble from the stricken side of the building signalled the collapse of part of the mammoth structure, which covers 604,500 square metres.
Throughout the city, people huddled in nervous chatter. Others jabbed furiously at their cellphones, desperately trying to reach family and friends. But the telephone network was briefly overloaded by the crush of calls.
Near the White House, a few tourists posed in front of the armed guards patrolling the site.
One man, Mahdi Leroy Thorpe of Washington, said arrogant U.S. foreign policy invited the attacks.
"It is a great day for America," he said. "It is the case of the chickens coming home to roost. This country has gone into countries and tried to bring peace, to impose their will. They do not know what they are doing. . . . This country is racist, this country is immoral, this county is arrogant."
Like many Americans, Brian Spillane, a student from Rochester, N.Y., reacted with anger. "I'm pissed off," he said. "You think we're strong enough and this will never happen to us."