Inside an Arlington office, live shots from the Pentagon crash site are being broadcast on five televisions lined up against a wall, each tuned to a different channel. But all eyes in the room are on County Manager Ron Carlee, who is holding a 4 p.m. briefing on the Washington area's response to the terrorist attack.
Arlington Police Chief Edward Flynn reports that District police have just sent 20 more officers to help out. County Fire Capt. Mark Penn says that Urban Search and Rescue teams from Fairfax and Montgomery counties are being relieved of duty to give them some rest.
"A New Mexico team is in flight and should be arriving at Andrews," Penn tells the group of about three dozen local, state and federal officials. "We fully expected rotation. We have Miami-Dade on standby."
When American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon Sept. 11, many people assumed that the District was in charge of the disaster at the nation's center of military power. But it was Arlington at ground zero.
"The country has now learned that the Pentagon is in Arlington," said County Board Chairman Jay Fisette (D). "Nor did many people realize that the county has primary responsibility for fire and rescue at the Pentagon."
County personnel assumed that responsibility quickly. Within minutes of the crash, which occurred just before 9:40 a.m., rescue crews were on the scene. Soon after, the county's Emergency Operations Center -- prewired for computers and phones -- was up and running. The county's emergency management plan, which details employee roles and responsibilities, also kicked in, making Carlee the director of emergency services.
No one expected that terrorists would crash a commercial jet into the Pentagon, but the county has always anticipated -- and drilled for the possibility -- that the building could be a terrorism target or the scene of a plane crash, Carlee said.
When the plane slammed into the Pentagon, Arlington Fire Chief Edward Plaugher was in Fairfax, applying for a loan to buy a motor home.
Hearing the news first from a clerk at his credit union, Plaugher grabbed his portable radio and made the fastest trip down I-66 he has ever made. Since then, he has been at the Pentagon every day, leading the fire and rescue operation and holding briefings for reporters at a nearby gas station.
After hearing about the attacks in New York, Penn left a training session to confer with county officials on possible risks to Arlington. He didn't know it then, but the plane flying over his head on the way back was Flight 77. When the hijacked plane hit its target, Penn could see the smoke. He made it to the operations center within five minutes, where he has been coordinating fire logistics ever since.
Penn said firefighters from all over the region "flocked" to the scene. He said probably 3,000 to 5,000 people were helping fight the fire or tend to the injured, and offers of help have continued to pour in.
"This is still an extremely dangerous operation, and it will be for some time," Penn said. "The rubble pile can move and shift at any time. I was scared when I saw the smoke and the other plane coming in. Since then, I'm charged up about all the response to this disaster."
The county's needs can change quickly, and many are itemized on a large board in a room near the operations center. A small army is working the phones.
Assistance increased tremendously when a state of emergency was declared for Arlington about two hours after the attack, Penn said. The available resources expanded further when the governor and president made declarations of their own, he said.
Cindi Causey, a regional coordinator for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, said the jurisdiction where a disaster occurs always has the primary responsibility for the response operation.
Causey, who oversees 47 jurisdictions in the state and has been based at Arlington's EOC since the crash, said the county will be a model for others in the way it has planned for and responded to this disaster.
Bill McSwain, an emergency analyst with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, agreed, saying "I have yet to see an operation better prepared or [as] well-trained. The citizens of Arlington County are well served."
Not Everyone Had a Badge
About 9:40 a.m. on Sept. 11, Cpl. Barry Foust was sitting in his cruiser at Walter Reed Drive and South Glebe Road. As he peered out his side window, he saw a plane that looked like it was coming in for a landing -- much too fast and at an odd angle.
The Arlington police officer lowered his window, but he didn't hear any crash. Seconds later, he saw the smoke, leaving no doubt about what had just happened.
"352," Foust said, identifying himself to a dispatcher on his police radio. "Delta 352. We just had an airplane crash east of here. Must be in the District area. "
Actually, the crash had occurred much closer. Foust raced to the scene. So did Officer Ralph Rice. And Sgt. Darrel Abate. And Cpl. Michael DeCardona. And Officer Danny Ohr. And Lt. Robert Medairos. At 9:42 a.m., Medairos ordered the closure of all roads surrounding the Pentagon, while other officers began helping evacuate employees.
"The consequences of breakdowns in international relations are played out locally," said Flynn, the police chief. "When there is a terrorist incident, the first person on the scene will be a local police officer, shortly followed thereafter by a local firefighter. The United States is unique in that such extraordinary authority is delegated to the smallest unit of government."
Many Arlington firefighters were on the front lines of this international drama, battling intense heat and risking their lives to save others.
Flight 77 flew right over Engine No. 101, and Fire Capt. Stephen McCoy can still see the plane making a low-angle, banked turn into the Pentagon. As firefighter Andrea Kaiser steered their truck toward the black smoke, she was terrified that terrorists would strike again, as they had in New York.
Arlington Fire Capt. Scott McKay was attending a counterterrorism class with the FBI in the District when he and several of his fellow firefighters heard about the terrorist attack on the Pentagon. They quickly raced back home -- "what was going through my mind was Oklahoma City," he said -- joining the fire battle at the building where his dad once worked.
"We were 500 feet back in there with hose lines," McKay said. "I don't think anybody suffered in there," he said. "We're doing our best. We always hope for survivors. But it was catastrophic."
The county police force has played more of a support role, taking charge of traffic around the Pentagon and helping the FBI collect evidence and search for bodies -- with lots of backup from area law enforcement. Shortly after the attack, Fairfax motorcycle officers showed up unannounced outside Arlington police headquarters, offering their help.
"It's an assault not only on our community but on our country," said Fairfax police officer Doug L. Payne, who has been helping with traffic. "There are jurisdictions here from Maryland and Virginia. Everybody's here to help."
When hot meals were needed the night of the crash, Arlington Sheriff Beth Arthur quickly offered the jail kitchen, which turned out 1,000 meals. Fairfax Sheriff Stan G. Barry matched it with the kitchen at his jail.
Not everyone pitching in was wearing a badge.
The day of the crash, Arlington Detective Jim Page found himself directing traffic on Columbia Pike for four hours with a citizen.
"About halfway into it, I said: 'By the way, I'm Jim.' He said, 'I'm Tony.' And I took my traffic vest off -- it says 'POLICE' on it -- and turned it inside out and told Tony to put it on," Page said. "And then we both got the rhythm of directing traffic. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be directing traffic with a citizen."
Page's police department set up a command post at the Pentagon, underneath an Interstate 395 overpass. Grateful Pentagon employees found the officers tucked under the overpass, often stopping by to bring food, sometimes melting into tears of gratitude.
Arlington police Lt. Terence Murray was working traffic at the Pentagon on Saturday when he talked to a woman in a van, who wanted to get closer to the crash site than police would allow. Her husband had been on Flight 77.
"I asked her, 'What can I do for you?' " Murray said. " 'You can tell me where my husband is,' " she said. Murray personally escorted her to a closer spot.
"What do I tell my children?" she asked Murray. "They're 5 and 8."
Murray had no answer. He just cried.
A Plethora of Food
When terrorism hit so close to home, Patricia Mast and her kids wanted to do something, anything, to help. So they made 150 sandwiches in their Arlington kitchen and took them to Fire Station No. 5, the closest to the Pentagon.
"It's something we could do," said Mast, a mother of three. "And it's the least we could do."
That feeling was shared by many others who also made the trip to Fire Station No. 5, where every available surface was covered with homemade goodies.
Arlington firefighters and police officers say they have been greeted everywhere by applause, honking horns and salutes.
"It's like we're rock stars," said Harry Brady, at 58 the county's oldest firefighter (and proud of it). When Brady popped into the Cowboy Cafe for breakfast, he was told that his tab had already been picked up by another customer.
When Cpl. Joe Peralta found a handwritten note someone had left at the firehouse, he tucked it into his police jacket for safekeeping.
"Words cannot express the sadness that we all feel after such a tragic event," Malissa White wrote. "Most of us walk around numb and stop at every television in order to catch a glimpse at the latest news.
"In every picture and on every tv station, the one constant site is the men and women of the fire departments and police stations working nonstop at the Pentagon and in NYC in order to rescue, search, pick up pieces of rubble and continue to protect our country. . . .
"I admire your strength and loyalty to our country, not only now, but every day. It's unfortunate that it takes a tragedy for a lot of us to tell you all how much we appreciate you keeping us safe everyday of our lives. God bless you all."