Ground Zero at the Pentagon

WASHINGTON, SEPT 11--Joe Vallone, the U.S. Army's environmental technology chief, crossed the threshold of his office in Corridor 5 of the Pentagon's D ring a few minutes shy of 8:00 Monday morning and began attacking the documents on his desk. Around 8:30, a colleague poked his head in. "The World Trade Center's blown up" was all he said.

Within seconds, Vallone was in the corridor hurtling towards the E-ring office of his friend and boss Ray Fatz, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Environment, Safety and Occupational Health. The TV was already on, and Fatz's secretary ushered Vallone in. Shocked and horrified by what he saw, Vallone tore back to his desk and immediately called his parents in New York. He could hear his mother crying as his father picked up. "Have you heard from Fran?" he asked. "No," his father replied. From his third-floor deck in Brooklyn, the elder Vallone was looking through binoculars at what remained of the World Trade Center -- his daughter Francesca's place of work.

Vallone spent an agonizing 15 minutes at his desk, futilely trying to call his sister. Despite the lack of success, he called his parents again. "Fran will be ok," he said, trying to be optimistic and reassuring. Almost as soon as the words tumbled out his mouth, Vallone went airbone.

It was, he says, "like someone shoved me off my seat." Dust rained down from the ceiling tiles, and Vallone could feel the building shaking. "Get out of the building!" someone screamed as they ran down the corridor. "I think a bomb went off," Vallone matter-of-factly told his already-horrified parents. "I'll get back to you."

A few moments before, Vallone's boss Ray Fatz had been standing behind his desk, watching what he had hoped was an Irwin Allen movie but was an only too-real Towering Inferno. On the phone with another Brooklyn-born colleague stationed at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, Fatz was telling him he had to get to a television when he heard It. "There was no warning. None. We heard a 'boom,' and then a'ba-BOOM,' and I said to my secretary,'I think we were just hit by a bomb.'"

It seemed to Fatz like the building was buckling. A shock wave was roiling everything, including the walls of his office. Grabbing his assistant and heading into the corridor, Fatz looked down the hall. The smell of jet fuel bordered on overwhelming, and the dark veil of smoke and dust rapidly moving in his direction portended no good.

It appeared that whatever had caused the blast had damaged an area encompassing at least three floors and torn through three of the Pentagon's five concentric hallway "rings." Fatz couldn't tell what, if anything, was left of the suite closest to the epicenter, the office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army of Civil Works. Nor could he tell if the offices of his friend Major General R.L. Van Antwerp, Assistant Chief of Staff for Installation Management, were still intact. Or those of Lieutenant General Larry Ellis, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans. Or those belonging to the Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics.

He and his secretary ran, with Vallone and scores of others not far behind them. As they poured out of the building, all eyes turned towards the Pentagon helipad, now swarming with emergency crews. Some asked if a helicopter had accidentally collided with the building. When told it was a plane, people just blinked. There wasn't much of anything inside the building except a blazing fireball. Emergency crews had begun to triage burn victims, and asked the evacuee crowd for help bearing stretchers. It was about that time that the flaming section of the Pentagon collapsed.

"There was absolutely no warning," says Vallone. "Emergency crews were hosing down the area, and there were people -- I don't know if they were corpses or wounded -- laid out in the general area. And all of a sudden, the building just folded. It wasn't very loud. It sounded like a large thud, like something heavy and wet, dropped to ground all at once."

As the building collapsed, black SUVs appeared on the scene disgorging alarmed FBI agents. Seconds later, the agents and Pentagon police were telling everyone to flee. "They were yelling, 'Everyone run, get out of here, another plane's been hijacked and it's five minutes out!' Of course you want to run, but where to?" says Fatz. "We could see pieces of debris on the highway by the Pentagon, and I'm thinking, do we have enough time to get far enough away?"

The alarm turned out to be false, and instructions to leg it became orders to go home. Unable to reach their cars, some simply hailed passing cars on Washington Boulevard. Like thousands of others, Vallone slowly began to make his way home, called his parents in New York and got the best news he'd heard all day: His sister Fran was nowhere near the World Trade Center when the towers were attacked. Tuesday morning was the rare occasion she was late to work, stuck in traffic.

Jason Vest is a regular contributor to The Nation, The American Prospect and In These Times.


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