Since 9/11, Pentagon police officer unable to forget hurt man he tried to help

September 7, 2011

Seventh in a series.

It is an early morning in July, and Don Brennan, a Pentagon police officer, sits in the cafeteria of the fortress where he has worked for 22 years, eating his usual egg-and-bacon sandwich, explaining the most unreservedly proud moment of his career: Sept. 11, 2002.

“Ted Koppel actually said my name,” Brennan is saying, recounting his interview on the TV news show “Nightline,” which aired that day, and which he has replayed on his VCR every Sept. 11 since. “He said, ‘Officer Don Brennan will be the first voice you hear.’ They said 3 million people will be watching. They said, ‘Don’t look at the red light.’ And I said, ‘I know enough from Burbank’ ” — where he once worked as a security guard for “Wheel of Fortune” - “ ‘not to look at the red light.’ So, not to pat myself on the back, but it came across real good.”

The Don Brennan who came across was his best self, a heroic self, brave and confident, his white uniform crisp and his badge shining as he explained what he did on the morning the plane crashed into the Pentagon. He said that it was like something out of a war movie. That he ran toward “people who were totally screaming.” And that the first casualty he saw was a man in a military uniform.

“He came out of the hallway and [was] bleeding profuse from a head wound,” Brennan said as the camera closed in on his broad face, eyes blinking behind large wire-rimmed glasses. “And I looked at him. And I, I tried to say something to him. And he collapsed. . . . He appeared to be dead to me. And they said, ‘Officer Brennan, leave the fatalities.’ ”

The Don Brennan of this July morning, however, is no longer certain about all that. He is 62, facing retirement and lingering doubts about how he acted that day, questions that claw at his conscience, and whose only resolution, he has come to realize, is to figure out who the wounded man was.

“I’m trying to visualize him. He had a piece of metal in his forehead — right there,” Brennan says, pressing a thumb to his own forehead. “He was in a dress military uniform. A Marine? I can’t say. I wish I had his name, because when the casualty list came out, then I would know. I would like to know more about him.”

       •••

He goes to work, walking through the cool gray maze of corridors, a pale figure blending into the morning rush of people in camouflage and dress khakis heading to a thousand cubicles. He passes a wall of portraits of top Pentagon officials. “There’s your secretary, your deputy, your Joint Chiefs — whoa,” says Brennan, who often says “whoa,” as if in deference to power, to life, to all that is overwhelming.

He walks out into the hot sunshine — “Whoa,” he says — and crosses into an annex building, arriving at the Pentagon police laundry, where he has been assigned to light duty for the past year along with other infirm officers.

“So,” Brennan says, ducking under the counter and taking up his post, a chair in front of rows of clean uniforms wrapped in cellophane. “Now I’m here.”

He is a man less definitive now in almost every way. His brown hair is graying, his memory dimming, his hearing failing, which is why he is on light duty.

In June, he shed his badge, his gun, radio, ballistic vest and uniforms that bestowed upon him a generic hero status he took seriously and relished. He usually kept the gear at home, preferring to drive to the Pentagon officially dressed, a cop ready for anything, although, he grants, nothing much happened until Sept. 11, when he was on duty, and he said to himself, “Don, this is it. This is it.”

His uniform these days is a navy blue shirt and navy blue pants, a monochrome suggesting no particular identity. And it’s about 30 pounds lighter.

“You’re way down now,” says Sheri Luck, a civilian employee in the laundry, referring to all the equipment Brennan turned in.

“Yeah,” he says. “Now I’m Joe Schmo.”

He sits under fluorescent, faintly humming lights, arms folded, head on hand, Sept. 11 all around him.

“Did you get your 9/11 anniversary badge?” Luck is asking.

Reminders are everywhere. Lost faces are draped across a massive banner in the Pentagon’s main entrance hall, and summer tourists are flocking to the memorial chapel, which has books with names and photographs of the Pentagon victims, a list Brennan once checked for the wounded man, in case something clicked. Nothing did.

All Don Brennan has for certain anymore is the basic sequence of events that day: He was in the second-floor cafeteria, unaware of the attacks in New York. A call came over his police radio that a plane was heading for the Pentagon, and then that the plane had crashed into the Pentagon, on the opposite side. He heard nothing. He felt nothing. He ran toward the opposite side. He saw the wounded man. He left the wounded man. He continued on to an inner ring, where the nose of the plane seemed to have punched a hole that was full of flames and trapped people, and he radioed firefighters to the scene.

The finer details are a jumbled heap in Brennan’s mind, and over the years he has sorted them into roughly two versions of what happened, two stories of why he left the wounded man, one ending with absolution, the other with a spiral of doubt and guilt.

Version one: the “Nightline” tape, in which the wounded man staggers into a hallway, blood pouring from his head. Brennan tries to say something to the man, who collapses, appearing to be dead, which is the reason Brennan leaves him behind.

Version two: the story he lives with most days, in which it is the wounded man who is trying to say something to Brennan.

“He tried to talk to me,” Brennan says. “I don’t know what he said. He was asking for help, I imagine. . . . I called to three military people. I said, ‘Let’s prop him up by the stairs.’ I left him propped up. It bothered me. . . . People were saying, ‘You can’t just leave him. He needs medical help.’ And I said, ‘He’s dead, he’s gone.’ And they said, ‘You’re not a doctor.’ ”

“Honestly,” Brennan says after a while, “I don’t know if people were yelling it at me or if those were the voices in my head. I don’t know. . . . He could have been alive.”

The man had a nametag, he remembers that, but he can’t recall any of the letters. Not even the first one. Not whether the name was short or long, common or unusual, nothing. Not the names of the men who helped him. Or anyone else who might have seen him with the wounded man.

Brennan is walking now back through the Pentagon’s corridors, on his way to see the location of his next assignment, which will be out of the police division altogether and, as he sees it, a transition to ever greater obscurity.

“Hey, Brennan,” an officer calls to Brennan, whose own nametag is dangling from his collar. It is a square plastic badge with an “A” and a photograph of his younger self: a working-class guy from Newark who grew up watching police shows; who joined the Army but avoided Vietnam; who wanted to be an FBI agent but didn’t meet the requirements; who then wanted to be a postal inspector but was too old; who moved to Los Angeles and became a door-to-door insurance salesman, then a security guard; who met Johnny Carson once; who had a daughter, and drove back across the country in a U-Haul with his wife and baby to Washington, where they had another daughter; and who landed a decent job at the Pentagon to support them.

He had prepared himself over the years for anything. He joined the hostage negotiating team, and then the SWAT team, although nothing ever happened. In 1995, he fired three shots at a suspected bank robber who was running through a parking lot near the Pentagon and missed, an outcome he says he’s happy about, because he wouldn’t want to live with the fact that he took a life.

He wanted to save a life. Then Sept. 11 came.

“What’s up, Sarge,” says Brennan, who is limping slightly because his ankles hurt, and he heads down a hall that reminds him of the one he says he crawled through on Sept. 11, staying low to avoid the smoke, inching toward the sound of people screaming for help, but finally turning around because the heat became too intense.

He crosses into an alley between two inner rings and stops.

“This is where the hole was,” he says, looking at a wall, sure of this one thing. “This whole side of the building was in flames.”

He walks into the next ring and then out into another alley that looks just like the first.

“Hold on,” he says, seeming suddenly confused. “Maybe this is the door I came out of. This is where it was.”

He looks around, sees an elevator.

“Guess what? There was no elevator. I don’t remember this. I was right the first time.”

He steps back into the maze and walks down another corridor, and the light becomes dimmer and orangish as he arrives at what is likely to be his final job at the Pentagon: working an X-ray machine at the loading docks, a portion of which was used as a temporary morgue on Sept. 11.

“Hey,” Brennan says to his future co-workers. “I’m joining your crowd now. I’m just like you guys.”

“Hey, how ya doing,” one worker says.

“This is where they shoot old men,” jokes another, greeting Brennan.

“Hey, this guy got the medal,” Brennan says, recognizing James Thomas, who was awarded the medal of valor for his efforts on Sept. 11, a distinction that eluded Brennan, because he was never able to name a person he saved.

            •••

The next Saturday Brennan is at home in suburban Stafford County. He wants to watch the “Nightline” tape again. But his VCR is broken, so he has rummaged in a closet for another tape.

This one is an audiocassette recording of an hour-long phone interview with his daughter Jennifer two months after Sept. 11. She was in college in Utah at the time and did the interview for a class. Now Brennan is putting it in the tape deck in his living room, where the sun is bright in the windows.

“Dad,” begins his daughter. “I’m recording. Everything that comes to mind, tell me.”

The Brennan on the tape begins with the cafeteria.

“And I looked out the door and saw people running, just sheer panic . . . just complete chaos . . . and someone grabbed me and said, ‘Come with me,’ that there was a man injured.”

The Brennan on the couch has his head in his hand. He has not heard the tape since 2002.

“I remember he was a military guy, bleeding profusely from the head. It was the impact of the wall, or he got hit with something, I’m not sure. I went to give him aid, and people almost ran over us. Then someone grabbed me, and said, ‘Officer, you need to come with me.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to leave this individual by himself.’ I said, ‘He’s injured.’ So, I like to think, I’m not sure, I think I told two people, ‘Get him medical aid.’ But first thing was, it finally hit me. ... the enormity. I said, ‘What the heck do I do?’ ”

Then Brennan describes what he did do: He ran to the flaming crash site between corridors 3 and 4, where he stood in jet fuel and plane parts and body parts and ignored the first order to evacuate and radioed for firefighters.

“I said, ‘I don’t care about the building being evacuated,’ ” said the Brennan on the tape. “I said, ‘I got people burning, choking on smoke.’ ”

He described hearing people screaming, “We’re here! We’re here!” and the building walls collapsing. He described seeing what was left of the cockpit.

“So, how did it affect your worldview?” Jennifer asked, and as the Don Brennan on the tape answered, the Don Brennan on the couch leans in, his round face soft and pale in the bluish light of the living room.

“So the emotion is, is, is the first victim I saw, I wish I had personally taken him out and given him aid or done something for him,” he said.

He continued: “Believe it or not, found out the second week, an officer said to me, um, yeah, that there was a guy who looked like he got hit in the head. He said two employees took him to center court and he was treated, so he survived. And that made me feel good. Because I wondered, ‘Did I leave him to die?’ And what kind of police officer am I to leave someone that needed my help?”

At last, here was the answer, the fact that Brennan had somehow forgot: The wounded man had lived.

Except, a minute later on the tape, Brennan told his daughter: “To be honest, I don’t know whether he survived. . . . Really, I can’t believe I left him.”

And: “I have problems sleeping at night. I have nightmares.”

And: “I just froze. I didn’t know to go up, down, sideways. . . . My instinct was to help him, to bend down, to assist him, because he was bleeding profusely. Then someone grabbed me by the shoulder. . . . What was first? The arm or him? I’m trying to unjiggle it. . . . It’s all jumbled up in my mind.”

And finally: “I wish I knew his name tag. Then I would have known. And — ”

The tape cuts off.

It is late afternoon, and Don Brennan leans back in the couch.

Ten years have passed.

Who is the wounded man, the wounded man still wonders.

First in the series: Trying to find the new normal

Second in the series: Twin misses his other half

Third in the series: Brought together by catastrophe

Fourth in the series: After 9/11, security guard on high alert

Fifth in the series: Still feeling at home up in the sky

Sixth in the series: After loss, working to fill the void

Eighth in the series: Living with ‘if only’

Ninth in the series: The skeptic who was there

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