By Jerry Markon and Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
John Thurman hugged the floor, his face pressed against the hot carpet as he tried to escape the smoke that was filling his Pentagon office. His throat burned. His co-worker, who had been gripping his belt, had gone silent.
"I felt this overwhelming sense that I wanted to take a nap," Thurman, a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, told a federal jury yesterday at the death penalty trial of Zacarias Moussaoui. "And that's when it hit me that I was going to die."
But the West Point graduate made a silent vow: not on this day, not on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked four planes and crashed one of them a floor below Thurman's office. "I was very angry that terrorism was going to try to take my life," said Thurman, recalling how he held his breath, shoved filing cabinets out of his way and crawled to safety even as three of his six office-mates died. "I just had to, no matter what . . . get out of there."
Thurman's voice was composed and his bearing was crisp. Yet his story was as dramatic as any of the tales of death and survival that have gripped the jury at the sentencing trial of Moussaoui, the only person convicted in the United States on charges stemming from the Sept. 11 attacks. And Thurman's testimony signaled a shift in focus for the prosecutors who are trying to convince jurors that the al-Qaeda operative, who pleaded guilty last year, should be executed.
Yesterday, the government turned to the hijacking that -- outside the Washington area -- is less publicized than the other events of Sept. 11: the takeover of American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon and killed 184 people. There was no dramatic footage of the building crumbling to the ground, as the World Trade Center towers did in New York. Nor was there evidence that the passengers of Flight 77 mounted an effort to take back the plane, as happened on United Airlines Flight 93 before it crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
But yesterday's testimony reminded the jury that conditions were just as horrific on that day at the Pentagon, a symbol of U.S. might just a few miles from the federal courthouse in Alexandria.
U.S. Navy Lt. Nancy McKeown wept on the stand as she told of a nightmare of smoke and fire in which people jumped out of second-story windows and tried to find escape routes past collapsed ceilings and overturned office furniture and light fixtures.
"Every time I took a breath, it felt like my insides were on fire," said McKeown, describing how she dived under her desk when the plane hit, yelled for two colleagues with whom she had just been speaking and is still overcome with grief at their deaths. Her voice raspy, McKeown said she suffers from a disorder of her airway because of all the soot she inhaled.
Pentagon police Sgt. Jose E. Rojas Jr. said he reverted to periodic drinking and smoking cigarettes after his efforts to rescue trapped Pentagon workers left him traumatized. He described standing outside a windowsill and begging people to "keep coming to the sound of my voice." One man slipped back into the Pentagon because "his skin came off in my hands. I could hear him screaming and hollering," Rojas said, dabbing his eyes with a tissue.
Prosecutors magnified the emotional impact by playing news clips that showed a huge fireball rising from the building and a gaping hole in its side. Just before the lunch break, they also showed the jury pictures of death -- the scorched partial remains of Pentagon victims and a blackened body atop a blue body bag.
The government is expected to wrap up its case for Moussaoui's execution today by playing the cockpit voice recorder depicting the struggle of passengers to take back Flight 93 from the hijackers, the first time the tape has been played in public.
Late yesterday, prosecutors played an air traffic control tape of the moment when hijackers took over the cockpit. A voice, apparently that of the pilot, can be heard exclaiming, "mayday," and then, "get out of here!"
After the government rests its case, Moussaoui is expected to testify again as early as tomorrow. In the first phase of the sentencing hearing, he told jurors that he had planned to hijack a fifth airplane on Sept. 11 and fly it into the White House. Jurors concluded the first phase by finding Moussaoui eligible for the death penalty. They will now decide whether he will be executed or sentenced to life in prison. The case could go to the jury by late next week.
Jurors have heard from 35 Sept. 11 witnesses, most of them family members who lost loved ones in the trade center attacks. Early yesterday, they heard a gripping tale of survival from Juan Rivero, a former police officer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who was helping to evacuate victims when the second tower fell. He said he was hit by a cloud of debris and thrown through the air almost half a block, landing next to a fence. A fireman landed on his legs.
"I was at peace," said Rivero. "I put my head down. I saw my son's face, and I thought I was going to die."
Rivero said he couldn't breathe. "It was like if you put a vacuum cleaner into your mouth and put it on in reverse," he said. But when the cloud cleared, he fought off firemen trying to put him into an ambulance and went back to look for his partner and friend, Al Neidermeyer.
Rivero stayed at Ground Zero until 10 p.m. that day looking for Neidermeyer, then went back the next day and the day after that, he said in response to questions from Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert A. Spencer. In fact, the former Marine said, his voice choking with emotion, he went back every day for a month but never found his friend's body.