It was Patty Pague's purse that got them laughing again in the Defense Intelligence Agency's comptroller's office.
There had been little except tears, pain and sadness since Sept. 11.
Of the 18 workers inside Room 1C535, seven died when the hijacked jet hit. Five others were hospitalized, some with grave injuries, and none left the Pentagon that day unscarred.
The horror inside the room, the narrow escape, the hospital stays, the funerals, the grieving families, the guilt feelings about surviving -- what was there to laugh about?
But hearing the story of how Patty crawled out of that room, dutifully dragging her behemoth purse (it weighed a ton, it seemed, with enough odds and ends to supply an army), and this as her colleagues were stripping off their clothes and lapping up water off the floor in a desperate struggle to escape the terrible heat and stay alive -- that was funny.
A half-year after the attack, the reconstruction of the Pentagon is racing along, with crews repairing the broken facade and ready to start roof work today, the six-month anniversary. Harder to mend are the souls of those who were there Sept. 11.
"It wasn't our best day, believe me, but it was our luckiest day," said Paul Gonzales, a supervisor in the comptroller's office. "Because the engineers tell us there's no way we should be alive. If you think about what happened in that little room, we should not be here."
Despite critical injuries that would leave him on life support, close to dying, Gonzales, 47, is credited with leading four of his trapped workers to safety. But it's the ones he could not save that he thinks about most.
"There isn't a day we don't miss them, and think about them, and see their pictures in the lobby," Gonzales said. "I thank God the guys went quickly."
All the survivors from Room 1C535 are back at work -- some went back within days, others after long hospital stays. "We're doing better than anyone thinks we should be," Gonzales said. "We're closer. . . . We're a family, a dysfunctional family, but a family."
The other day, as they gathered to talk about their experiences, Gonzales recounted how in the minutes after the World Trade Center was hit, he had confidently declared that the Pentagon was probably the safest building in the world.
"That's why I'm not an intelligence analyst," Gonzales noted sheepishly. His colleagues began to laugh.
"It took a long time to hear laughter in this office," Gonzales said, surveying the scene. There was sadness in his eyes as he spoke, and the laughter stopped.
'I Saw . . . Hell' Another two days, and they all would have been gone. The DIA's Office of the Comptroller was moving from its home on the first floor of the Pentagon's C Ring to offices elsewhere in the building as part of ongoing renovation work. Already, more than 50 of the approximately 75 people who worked there had moved out, and the rest were busy the morning of Sept. 11 preparing to do the same.
News of the plane crashes at the World Trade Center had caused a stir, but by 9:30 a.m., most in Room 1C535 were settling back to business in the windowless, classified rectangular space filled with cubicles and small offices.
Gonzales, a retired Navy commander from Annandale, got up from his desk, picking up a piece of paper to deliver to Patty Mickley, one of his budget analysts. On the way to her desk, he spied her talking in the office of Chuck Sabin, another supervisor. "She gave me a nice, big beautiful smile," Gonzales said.
He decided not to bother her and kept walking, laying the paper on her desk. Before he could turn around, he heard a sound. "Things started to go flying by me, there was a wind, and I started to fly with it," Gonzales said. He felt an incredible heat -- like an oven.
Facing the blast, Aaron Cooper saw two streams of fire roar through the room. "If you can imagine a fire-breathing dragon, that's what it looked like," said Cooper, 46, of Upper Marlboro.
In a nearby cubicle, Dave Lanagan thought he was having another heart attack. "Every ounce of breath was being sucked out of me," said Lanagan, 49, of Dale City.
On the floor, Gonzales was surprised to find himself alive. He looked at his hands. The skin was peeled back across both palms, curled like carrot peels from a vegetable scraper.
Then he heard screaming. Burning ceiling tiles had fallen on Kathy Cordero's head. "They were almost like a hat on her, and it was on fire," Gonzales said. "She kept hitting it with her arm, and all it would do is rock back."
Gonzales crawled over and batted the burning tiles away with the back of his hand.
He and Cordero crawled forward and found Lanagan, Pague and Christine Morrison clustered on the floor. "We'd gone as far as we could," said Lanagan. "We were trapped."
The room was unrecognizable. All of the fire exits were blocked by furniture and rubble. Smoke was building, lowering the ceiling of air and visibility closer and closer to the ground.
Gonzales started a roll call. Some workers in different parts of the room, including Cooper and Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Hooton, had already escaped, vaulting over cubicles before the smoke built up.
They called back to Gonzales' office, where Mickley, Sabin and others had been. There was no answer. Gonzales crawled atop a desk, feeling the temperature soar as his head rose. He looked over a seven-foot partition.
"I saw what I believe was hell," Gonzales said. There was black, billowing smoke, illuminated by eerie islands of fire.
Gonzales lowered himself to the floor and gazed underneath the desk. "It looked dark, it looked cool, it looked quiet, it looked awfully inviting.
"I also realized if I went over there and went to sleep, I'd be dead," he said. "And if I died, my wife would never forgive me."
Gonzales crawled back and found the others. The heat was building. Lanagan had stripped off his shirt, and some of the women had taken off their blouses trying to cool down.
"This doesn't look real good," Lanagan told Gonzales. "I don't know if we're going to get out of here."
"That was the point where I decided, we better just get the hell out of here," Gonzales said.
Cordero later told him he tried to kick down a partition and move furniture, though Gonzales remembers little. "All I know is when I got toward the end, I found a hole," he said.
The others had lost sight of Gonzales and were losing hope. Water, apparently from broken pipes, had collected on the floor, and they drank it. Lanagan prayed aloud: Hail Mary, full of grace. Help me out of this place.
Then they heard Gonzales' voice, coming like a foghorn through the thick smoke: "There's a hole." Cordero followed his voice, the others crawling behind.
They kept crawling until they reached a corridor. Pague came out last, dragging her purse. Gonzales, gasping for breath, led them to the Pentagon's interior courtyard, where he collapsed.
The day after the attack, his lungs failed and he went on life support at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The cells in his lungs had been killed by chemical burn and heat. "They told my wife I was going to go bad," he said. "They weren't sure how bad bad was going to be."
After a few days, the worst was over. He left Walter Reed two weeks after arriving.
Seven co-workers -- Rosa Chapa, Sandra Foster, Robert Hymel, Shelley Marshall, Patricia Mickley, Charles Sabin and Karl Teepe -- would never go home. Their pictures now hang in the lobby of the DIA's analysis building at Bolling Air Force Base, where the comptroller's office is based temporarily. The survivors walk by them every day.
'The Fun Is Gone' Gonzales had been back to work about a week in October when he got an e-mail from Patty Mickley.
Well before Sept. 11, he had programmed his computer to resend a budget reminder that she had e-mailed. "It was the most unnerving thing that happened," he said. "It was hard not to lose it right then and there."
Early on, he beat himself up for not bringing Mickley with him when he saw her chatting moments before the plane hit.
Eventually he realized that had he stopped to talk to her, neither would have had time to move away from the blast area. "The only thing that would have changed is I'd be dead," he said.
But that does not stop him from thinking about her and the others who were lost. "I still feel responsible for them. What could I have done to save them? I was told later most of them didn't last a second -- they were gone. Which helps me sleep at night."
He and others who were in Room 1C535 now say they may have returned to work too quickly. A strong sense of duty brought them back. And at first, the enormity of the tragedy kept them going.
Gonzales called the families as soon as he got out of the hospital. "Almost every last one of them used the same words: How are you doing? Are you okay?
"They just lost their spouse, their parents, and they're asking how I am?"
Then came the funerals, a heart-breaking set of ceremonies spread over two weeks in October. The service for Marshall, a 37-year-old mother of two small children, was the last one, and for some it was the toughest. "Having been through six funerals, we thought we were a hardened bunch," said Larry Mangin, a supervisor. "But it tore our hearts out."
As they settled back into their work routine, though, Gonzales and others found it hard to regain their enthusiasm for their budget work. "I still like to believe what we do is important," Gonzales said. "I have a very interesting job, but the fun is gone."
From his office at Bolling in the District, Gonzales can gaze across the Potomac at the Pentagon and the jets flying into Reagan National Airport. "Sometimes, it looks like they're lining up right on this building," he said quietly.
He still talks to "the head doctors," and he watches his co-workers for signs of stress from the trauma they survived.
At a ceremony in January, Gonzales was presented with the DIA's award for exceptional civilian service, the highest honor the agency can bestow on a civilian, for saving his four colleagues.
That wasn't the tough part, he said. "We're not heroes for getting out of there; we're heroes for going back there."