About a month after the events of September 11, 2001 I was asked by journalist Allison Gilbert to contribute my experiences at the Pentagon on that day to a book called Covering Catastrophe: Broadcast Journalists Report September 11. While I knew I was only one of many TV and radio reporters and anchors who would be contributing to the book, and Allison would only be using a couple of blurbs, it was an opportunity for me to write a chronology of the day and put a few thoughts down.
Below is that account. It is a view of September 11 through the eyes of a TV reporter who arrived on Washington Boulevard in front of the Pentagon helipad six-minutes after impact. YouTube has some of the TV coverage from that day broadcast by my colleagues at WUSA-TV in Washington. I have added those clips at the appropriate times.
I conclude with a postscript written 40-days after the attacks that looks at the public’s perception of firefighters following the sacrifice made by 343 members of the Fire Department of New York.
September 11, 2001
8:52 AM: Spending time with my son is always the best way to start the day. Sam, almost two years old, is eating his breakfast. I bring my toast into the den to sit with him. The television is on so we can do what we usually do in the morning, watch my wife, Hillary Howard, Sam’s mom, do the weather on WUSA-TV. Instead of the “Early Show” ending to make way for local news, I see the open to a “CBS News Special Report”. I turn the sound up, but don’t need Bryant Gumbel to tell me that something is very wrong at one of the World Trade Center towers. The thick, black smoke pouring out of many windows and from the roof makes it very clear this is a major disaster in the making. Gumbel says there is a report that a plane hit the building. Those words send me out of the room and upstairs to quickly finish getting dressed.
9:03 AM: I occasionally glance at the TV upstairs. A little slow to comprehend some of what it going on, it dawns on me that this appears to be a crystal clear day. I am starting to wonder if this plane crash is really an accident. As I think about calling the newsroom to suggest we might be dealing with a terrorist attack of some sort, any doubts I had are immediately erased. My head quickly turns toward to the TV as I hear a woman say to Byrant Gumbel, “Oh, there is another one! Another plane just hit! Oh, my gosh! Another plane has hit! Another building! Flew right into the middle of it. Explosion.”
It hit me instantly that our lives have suddenly changed.
9:05 AM: On the phone to the station, I talk to Dave Roberts, our news director. I am convinced that if the people who did this were organized enough to quickly hit two targets like the World Trade Center towers, Washington would be next. We decide I will head into town to start looking around for increased security measures and be ready if another attack occurs.
9:10 AM: No time for our normal goodbye ritual. I give Sam a quick kiss and hug. Sam says something about “Jay Jay”. “Jay Jay the Jet Plane”, Sam’s favorite TV show, comes on soon. Not knowing what he may have already seen on TV this morning, I tell him calmly that “Jay Jay” is having a bad day. With the uncertainty of what was ahead, I didn’t want to leave Sam. I knew, though, he was in good hands with Glenda, the woman who takes care of him while we are at work.
9:15 AM: Realizing my good friend, Dan Patrick, our night assignment manager, is probably asleep and has no idea what is going on, I wake him. Dan doesn’t believe me when I describe the events of the morning along with my concern that Washington is next. Certainly I would have thought this was one of his sick practical jokes if the situation were reversed. Hanging up, I’m not sure he is convinced that this is for real.
9:25 AM: My first stop, the State Department. I circle the block and notice some extra officers being deployed around the building. Other street activity appears normal. Checking out the Pentagon never enters my mind.
9:38 AM: East bound on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House, I turn north on 17th Street. At that moment the scanners in my car come alive. On numerous police and fire radio frequencies, people are yelling that a plane hit the Pentagon. Making a fast U-turn, I see the smoke rising across the Potomac River. I get the assignment desk on the phone. It’s a bad connection. I yell into the phone, “Pentagon, Pentagon, Pentagon. Send everyone to the Pentagon. I should be there soon.”
I carefully bust a few lights on southbound 17th Street. Making a right turn, traffic is light on westbound Independence Avenue.
9:41 AM: Anchors Mike Buchanan and Andrea Roane break into CBS coverage to report that there has been an apparent plane crash at the Pentagon. They have distant, but clear pictures of the Pentagon ablaze from our rooftop camera in Rosslyn.
9:43 AM: There is also little traffic heading outbound on the Memorial Bridge. Across the river, I now have a distant view of the Pentagon. The very black smoke I am seeing is surely caused by the fuel, now burning, that was in the plane’s tanks. I call the control room to try and get on the air, but the call cuts out as the anchors lead to me.
9:44 AM: Somehow I end up on southbound Washington Boulevard directly in front of the Pentagon helipad. That is good news, but for the moment it does me no good because there is wireless gridlock. I am unable to get a phone call out.
9:46 AM: I have my home video camera out and on the tripod, rolling off a few shots. The phone still isn’t working.
9:48 AM: Walking down Washington Boulevard is Heather Cabot a recently hired reporter for WUSA. She tells me her phone isn’t getting out either. I ask her to take over my camera and I will work on trying to get a phone call to the station. Heather tells me she is with photographer Mike Trammel. I look back to see Trammel and put my camera away.
9:52 AM: Heather’s phone finally gets through. I describe the scene as firefighters from Ft. Meyer and National Airport put the first water and foam on the burning Pentagon. Some people are looking at the sky, making sure another plane isn’t approaching. I suggest to Heather, that it is probably a good idea for us to do the same. Amazingly traffic on northbound Washington Boulevard has not been blocked and drivers are just whizzing by the burning Pentagon as they head to work.
A familiar red van pulls a few feet past us. It is one of our microwave vans with Bruce Bookholtz at the wheel. I am a bit amazed that, with no communication, we all end up at the same spot.
We hear a number of small pops and explosions. I am guessing those are tires popping from the vehicles that were parked against the building and are now burning, or possibly some small canisters exploding. Among the vehicles on fire is the new crash/rescue fire truck, belonging to the Ft. Meyer Fire Department. It is stationed at the Pentagon and is routinely on hand for helicopter landings and takeoffs, in case of an emergency. It is a fire truck designed for just this rare event, a plane crash, and it can’t be used.
9:55 AM: Heather tells me to look down on the street around us. I was so intent on watching the burning Pentagon, I hadn’t noticed there are what appear to be small pieces from the airplane at my feet. I had already seen the large amount of debris scattered on the Pentagon lawn, but so far no piece is large enough to be easily identified as an airplane part.
9:57 AM: Our first live video is on the air. You see flames crawling up the familiar face of the Pentagon along with some of the first victims as they are carried away from the building.
9:59 AM: I am on the air with Michael Kelly, an eyewitness Heather pulled out of the crowd. Kelly was driving on nearby I-395 when he saw the plane take aim on the Pentagon.
10:00 AM: Anchor Andrea Roane interrupts me, “Dave, Dave, Dave. We want to break in, because we want to go back to New York, where Dan Rather is anchoring our coverage, where one of the towers at the World Trade Center has collapsed”.
These words stop me in my tracks for a moment. I have no TV monitor to see this for myself. Just Andrea’s words. It doesn’t compute in my brain. I had been a firefighter. I had studied high-rise firefighting. There had been a number of major high-rise fires throughout the world that burned for many hours. To my knowledge there had never been a catastrophic collapse of an entire building. This was just one of many things happening today that no one has ever had to deal with.
Knowing how aggressive New York firefighters are, I realize there must be scores of dead rescuers. The last pictures I saw out of New York were from an hour ago. Even then it was pretty apparent, from the amount of fire, that anyone at the impact points and above had little chance of survival.
10:05 AM: They come back to me for our first interview with someone who was in the Pentagon at the time of the attack. Two or three men on stretchers pass by us. It is our first close-up look at the injured and they are severely, if not critically burned over a good portion of their bodies. These victims are flown out by helicopter to a hospital burn unit. Their lives will never be the same.
10:10 AM: A Virginia State Trooper starts moving everyone back. There is concern another plane is coming toward the Pentagon. We don’t move.
10:15 AM: As they come back to our live shot, five floors suddenly collapse around the jet’s impact point. There is now a large gash on the west side of the Pentagon.
10:18 AM: People start running away from the Pentagon. This time, FBI agents are telling us another plane is just minutes out. They order us to move immediately. I am able to get in a few quick words, attempting to explain to Mike and Andrea what is happening, before the transmitter is turned off and the live truck’s mast starts coming down.
10:28 AM: We move just a short distance off Washington Boulevard and down the ramp to Columbia Pike. As Bruce tries to re-establish a signal, I hear through my earpiece that the second tower in New York has collapsed. I just can’t imagine what it going on in Manhattan. The death toll must be staggering. I recall my wife once telling me her grandfather hauled truckloads of steel used to build the Twin Towers. Now those buildings don’t exist.
10:32 AM: We are again feeding live pictures of the burning Pentagon.
10:36 AM: Witnesses are giving different descriptions of the plane that hit the building. Some say it is an American Airlines 757, while others believe it was a business jet. The fire is still burning out of control.
10:38 AM: Mike Buchanan asks me if I have seen any large pieces of an airplane at the scene. As I answer this question, he interrupts me,“Hold on Dave. Hold on just a second. We’ve got a bulletin from AP. A large plane has just crashed in Western Pennsylvania.”
Mike also reads an AP report about a car bomb going off at the State Department. We are just across the river from State and we didn’t hear an explosion.
10:42 AM: An F-16 makes a low pass near the Pentagon. That, along with the plane crash in Pennsylvania, makes me think there was something to the threats that forced us move away from the building. I notice a large group of people huddled under the Washington Boulevard overpass.
10:52 AM: A Lt. Colonel with Air Force Public Affairs passes our location. We snag him. He urges people to keep far away from the Pentagon. If you have loved ones you can’t account for, he asks that you not come to the Pentagon. He has no idea of the number of dead or injured. Not much in the way of information, but it is the first official word.
WUSA anchorman Gordon Peterson, who was originally sent to nearby National Airport for a flight to New York, arrives at our location.
10:54 AM: Mike and Andrea confirm there was no car bomb at the State Department. A little bit of good news.
11:06 AM: Gordon interviews Mike Walter, a television reporter for “USA Today Live”. Mike, on his way to work in Rosslyn, witnessed the Pentagon crash and offers the most vivid description so far.
11:10 AM: We are again ordered to move our live truck further away from the Pentagon.
11:31 AM: Our shot is back up. This time, from a hill in front of the Quick Mart. This Citgo, looks like a normal service station, but it is exclusively for use by military personnel.
11:39 AM: The fire is spreading. Suddenly there are flames showing in a number of windows far from the point of impact.
People again start moving quickly from the Pentagon. There is more talk of another hijacked plane heading our way.
11:52 AM: Again, more people rush from the Pentagon.
12:16 PM: I listen to Dan Patrick, with a phone report, describe his attempts to get from Northern Virginia to the TV station in Northwest Washington. Dan says he had to show identification to a police officer and explain his business in the city. Only then was he allowed to cross Key Bridge into Georgetown. The city is in lockdown.
12:18 PM: Gordon notices an ambulance convoy from the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad pull up along Columbia Pike. It was a repeat of a scene I had witnessed, just on the other side of the Pentagon, almost 20 years earlier. The same Maryland squad sent a similar contingent after Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the 14th Street Bridge on January 13th, 1982.
12:20 PM: If I am not convinced how much turmoil there is in the country from these attacks, this does it. Mike and Andrea announce Disney World is being evacuated.
12:28 PM: A Navy public affairs officer officially confirms what has been painfully obvious. Besides the dead on the aircraft, Pentagon workers are dead inside the building. He has no idea how many people didn’t get out.
12:32 PM: Talking on the air with Mike and Andrea, it still isn’t clear which of the four hijacked jets smashed into the Pentagon. Right now, American Airlines believes the hijacked flight from Dulles crashed into one of the towers in New York.
Police move everyone, including the news media, off the hillside. Bruce pulls the truck around to the other end of the service station lot. This fourth move winds up being our last. It becomes home for the better part of two weeks.
1:19 PM: The first official briefing from the Pentagon. Rear Admiral Craig Quigley, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, announces that this was “a full assault on the United States of America”. The admiral says there was no way to prepare for an attack like this. I am shaking my head at the fact that the spokesman for the military headquarters of the United States of America is forced to talk to the world from a service station parking lot.
1:30 PM: CNN Pentagon Correspondent Jamie McIntyre joins me on the air for a few minutes. Our first time working together was at WTOP radio, 20 years ago, covering the Air Florida plane crash. Jamie says they always anticipated a terrorist attack at the Pentagon, but figured it would be on the other side of the building where all the top brass is located.
Off camera, Jamie tells me that just yesterday his son’s class in middle school had a discussion about the bombing in Oklahoma City. Jamie’s son told the class he always worries about his dad being hurt by an attack like this, because his dad works at the Pentagon. Jamie tried getting word to the school to let his son know he was okay.
1:50 PM: Andrea announces that the Urban Search and Rescue Team from Fairfax County, known as Virginia Task Force 1, has been activated and will be at the Pentagon shortly.
American Airlines now says they aren’t sure where Flight 77 ended up.
WUSA-TV’s Mike Trammel’s shot of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (third from the right) helping carry one of the injured from the Pentagon to a waiting ambulance.
1:56 PM: Admiral Quigley sets the tone for his second briefing by saying “you are going to have a lot more questions than I have answers.” Quigley doesn’t have an answer to the one question all of us are asking. He can only say, “we know there are casualties.”
He tells us Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was among the Pentagon workers hurrying from the building after the explosion. Rumsfeld helped the injured for about 15 minutes, getting several people onto stretchers. Then he went back inside to the National Military Command Center. The command center is reportedly smoky, but not damaged. (NOTE: Approaching the one-year anniversary of the attack, CNN’s Vito Maggiolo contacted me after looking at the raw video from September 11 shot by WUSA-TV photojournalist Mike Trammel. While many people had viewed that video, and all of it played out in front my own eyes, Vito was the only person to notice that one of the men carrying a stretcher with one of the first victims removed from the Pentagon was Secretary Rumsfeld.)
2:10 PM: Virginia Task Force 1 arrives. Normally Fairfax County’s Urban Search and Rescue Team is sent to some far off land by way of military transport. This time it was just a quick drive down Interstate 66 to the county on its eastern border.
2:23 PM: WUSA Photographer Greg Guise is able to provide some details surrounding the hijacked jet that went down in Pennsylvania. Greg grew up a few miles from the crash site and has business interests in the community. Greg relays a description of the scene from a radio engineer friend in Somerset County.
2:43 PM: For the past few hours we’ve seen no ambulances leave the area with lights and siren. We’re pretty certain that anyone alive is already being treated. Now reporter Jennifer Ryan, at the Virginia Hospital Center, confirms no more victims are expected from the Pentagon.
2:49 PM: Mike and Andrea report it’s now fairly clear the plane wreckage at the Pentagon is from American Airlines Flight 77 out of Dulles.
2:55 PM: Rear Admiral Stephen Pietropaoli, U.S. Navy Office of Information, tells us that in the recently renovated wedge of the Pentagon, where the attack occurred, there is blast resistant glass on the windows. In the days to come we hear from many who believe that this very expensive glass saved lives.
3:53 PM: Now briefing us at the Citgo press center, Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clark and Defense Protective Service Chief John Jester. Jester tells us the impact from the jet extends through to the C ring, the middle of the 5 rings of the Pentagon. All we see from our location, is that a portion of the E ring, the outer most portion of the Pentagon, has crumbled.
Clark admits she can’t confirm that all members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are accounted for. That news is a bit unsettling. We also hear about a Navy captain who burned his hands rescuing others. Clark says that man is already back from the hospital and wants to be put to work again, helping at the Pentagon.
4:12 PM: Rumors have been spreading that the U.S. military brought down the hijacked plane in Pennsylvania. Rear Admiral Craig Quigley says, “That didn’t happen. I cannot explain to you the cause of the crash of the airplane near Pittsburgh, but it was not engagement by a U.S. fighter aircraft.”
The Pentagon now confirms all the Joint Chiefs are accounted for.
4:54 PM: The second Urban Search and Rescue Team arrives. This one is from Montgomery County, Maryland.
5:04 PM: I see International Association of Firefighters General President, Harold Schaitberger and his press person, George Burke arrive at the Citgo. I grab Harold for a live interview. Harold has been in close touch with his people in New York. We learn for the first time that more than 200 New York firefighters probably perished when the towers collapsed. He calls firefighters “our domestic soldiers”. Schaitberger says the civilian death toll will be in the thousands. Off camera he lets me know that much of FDNY’s command staff was lost, including the Chief of the Department and the head of Special Operations.
5:36 PM: Harold Schaitberger joins me again with the story of two Ft. Meyer firefighters who were at the Pentagon when the crash occurred. They were standing near the fire truck we saw burning this morning. Both men were knocked down and injured by the force of the crash. They helped rescue a group of people through some of the office windows, before the firefighters themselves were hospitalized.
6:42 PM: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield briefs the press. For the first time since the crash, the press conference is held inside the Pentagon. I watch it from our van. Pushed for a body count, Rumsfeld says, “It will not be a few”. The Pentagon “will be in business tomorrow”.
8:45 PM: New information has been slow in coming, but marching up Columbia Pike with the television lights reflecting off his orange vest is a member of Montgomery County’s Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Team. Captain Scott Graham gives us the first solid information about the fire and rescue efforts. Scott becomes a lifeline for information in the days to come.
Despite the large fire still burning, Graham says the USAR team members are always optimistic about finding people alive. He says, “We have to look at it as a rescue effort for us. We have to look at it as a very unstable building. And our job, pretty much, is to take the name of the Pentagon off the outside of it and go in and rescue the people that are in there”.
9:52 PM: Another familiar face shows up at the Citgo. Ed Plaugher is the fire chief of Arlington County. The Pentagon is in Arlington County, Virginia and Chief Plaugher is the man in charge of the fire and rescue operations. None of the other reporters nearby seem to know who Plaugher is, or if they do, they don’t care. Ed joins me live at 10:00 PM with the first solid news about the loss of life at the Pentagon. There are no figures as of yet, but the Pentagon has given him a range to work with. Plaugher says it is believed that anywhere from 100 to 800 people work in the area where the impact occurred. While that is fairly large range, it lets us know that the death toll will likely be in the hundreds at the Pentagon, as compared to the thousands presumed dead in New York. Plaugher’s guess is, when it is over, the number at the Pentagon will be in the low hundreds.
Plaugher later receives some heat when his statements are taken out of context. Some news reports claim Plaugher estimated the death toll at 800. Days later we learn that 125 were killed on the ground and 64 perished aboard Flight 77.
On another topic Chief Plaugher says, “To be honest with you, we always were afraid of the Pentagon as being a target, but never in our wildest dreams to this extent. I am still in disbelief.”
11:03 PM: Fire has broken through in at least four places along the Pentagon roof. Chief Plaugher says aggressive interior firefighting operations will cease until daylight. But, crews overnight, will continue to pour in water from the outside to keep the fire from spreading further.
I relay a phone conversation with Scott Graham a few minutes before our 11:00 PM newscast. Scott and most of the USAR team members from Montgomery and Fairfax Counties worked very closely with Deputy Chief Ray Downey from the Fire Department of New York. Downey, commander of FDNY’s Special Operations, is unaccounted for after the towers collapsed. Scott says Downey commanded all the USAR teams in Oklahoma City after the bombing there. He says Downey wrote the book on urban search and rescue. Skills Downey taught will be utilized in New York and Arlington by hundreds of rescuers in the difficult days to come. His voice cracking, Scott tells me, “We lost a damn good man”.
We lost a lot of good men and women today.
October 27, 2001
11:15 PM: As I am looking back at September 11th, I have just spent a week covering the deaths of two Washington, D.C. postal workers, from inhalation anthrax. Others are hospitalized because of anthrax that was sent through the U.S. Mail. No one knows how this story will play out.
There is a lot of uncertainty since September 11th. Our war efforts, our security in public places, our ability to travel safely by air, our economic future. Like all parents, Hillary and I worry over what this will mean for our young son.
This much I’m sure of. Through the thick smoke hanging over New York and Washington, it became clear that some remarkable people walk among us.
Some are just ordinary citizens who put other people’s lives ahead of their own. Staying behind, trying to make sure everyone gets out.
Others are paid to protect us. But I don’t think anyone believes for a moment that a police officer, paramedic or firefighter’s modest salary is enough to encourage someone to walk into the places that these men and women did on September 11th. It takes much more than money. It takes heart, and courage, and a belief you can make a difference.
I know firefighters the best. Six years in a busy volunteer company during my youth, and almost 30 years making the fire service my beat as a reporter, have given me some perspective.
In many big cities, including our Nation’s Capital, the fire departments have long taken a back seat when it comes to funding. Citizens who can tell you how many times the police patrol car comes down their block, or how many officers are walking the beat, have no idea how many firefighters are on duty in the neighborhood fire station. Political leaders know this to be true and through the years have made drastic cuts in fire protection, often without protest from the public.
Through the years, I have reported many stories where citizens and firefighters have died because of these cuts. Just last week an understaffed ladder company became an issue in Houston, Texas, after a fire captain died in a high-rise apartment building fire.
Firefighters are can-do people. Their skills at making things work under adversity often hides from the public the shortcomings in their staffing, equipment and facilities.
Some of the good that has come from the sacrifices made by the 343 members of FDNY who died on September 11th, is the recognition, by the public, of what firefighters really do.
A recent trip to Arlington County Fire Station #2 brought this home. The firehouse is covered with cards and letters from all over the world. Many are from school children, with drawings of the firefighters in action at the Pentagon and World Trade Center. All say thanks.
Veterans of more than 20 years in the fire service are astounded by the reaction these days as they drive through local streets. People stop and wave. When the firefighters walk into a building in uniform, they are applauded.
On October 7th, I was at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Just two hours before military action in Afghanistan began, President Bush told the stories of some of the 99 domestic soldiers who died in the line of duty in the United States last year. I watched as spouses and children received a flag and a red rose, and heard a bell toll in honor of their loved one, our hero.
I have forced myself on most days since September 11th to read the New York Post, Daily News and Times and the accounts of the daily funerals of New York firefighters. It is difficult to read about the pain their wives and children are going through. It is the least, though, that we can do. It is important to remember this unbelievable sacrifice.
My hope is that people all over the United States are paying very close attention to these same stories of heroism. My hope is that they don’t forget these stories when someone is trying to save a little money and close down their local firehouse.
Right now when Sam sees a fire truck he says, “Evan”. “Revvin’ Evan” is the animated fire engine on that “Jay Jay the Jet Plane” cartoon show he loves. When Sam is old enough, I will make sure he knows a lot more about firefighters. I will make sure Sam understands exactly who those people were climbing up the clogged, smoke filled, stairways, as he sat in his high chair, watching the first pictures transmitted from New York, at 8:52 AM, on September 11th, 2001.