We need a goal, the Pentagon construction worker told W. Lee Evey.

It was a few weeks after Sept. 11, and Evey, the head of the Pentagon renovation program, was walking through the area demolished by the hijacked plane and blackened by fire when a group of laborers stopped him.

"We've all been talking about it, and we think the goal ought to be that you move people back within a year," their leader said. "Not everybody, that's probably impossible, but some reasonable number."

Evey considered the idea. The worst thing he could do was establish a goal that they could not achieve. He needed a target that was really a stretch, but at least possible. He soon declared the goal: By Sept. 11, 2002, the outer ring of the Pentagon then lying in ruins would be rebuilt and completely inhabited by office workers.

As Evey walked around the building in subsequent days, more construction workers came up to him.

"Are you nuts?" they asked.

Tomorrow, the last group of employees will move into their E Ring offices at the Pentagon, and the outer ring where a Boeing 757 jet struck the building will be fully occupied. "Not a made-for-TV sham where people sit there with little plastic computer simulations that aren't hooked up to anything and a phone that doesn't work," Evey said. "Real computers hooked up to real networks doing real work with real phones, everything functional."

It's an achievement that many considered impossible, particularly for a government-run construction program. Not incidentally, it has transformed the image of a Pentagon renovation program that just a few years ago was so mired in cost overruns, schedule delays and poor quality that it was threatened with cancellation. And it has captured attention across the country.

"We haven't split the atom, and we haven't gone to the moon. It's a building, and we built it fast," Evey said. "Having said that, it kind of sneaked up on us: Gee, not only is this project part of the mental health of the building, it's part of the mental health of the whole country."

Improbable Pair Behind the accomplishment is a pair of unlikely characters. Evey, 55, a cheerful psychology major, by his own admission knew nothing about construction. But he was a master of human nature and motivation, a contracts specialist leading a quiet revolution in the way the government deals with contractors.

His most important decision may have been to hire structural engineer Allyn Kilsheimer, a profane, 61-year-old maverick considered one of the best in the business when it comes to damaged structures. He'd worked the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. On a construction site, he was more force of nature than human. He hated government work and agreed to do the job on the condition that he not have to deal with anyone wearing a white shirt, with one exception: Lee Evey.

They were an odd couple. Evey was unfailingly polite, a short man in wire-rim glasses with an avuncular mustache and manner, someone who'd wear a tie strolling around the construction site. Kilsheimer was a full-bearded, long-haired bear of a man who wore a pink hard hat plastered with Mary Kay cosmetics stickers, his way of mocking the officials who kept insisting that he wear safety equipment.

Leading an army of several thousand workers itching to respond to the terrorist attack, Evey and Kilsheimer turned a construction project into a crusade.

When It Hit When American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, Evey was more than 100 miles down Interstate 81 and heading south. His brother-in-law had died the day before, and he was driving to North Carolina for the funeral with the car radio turned off.

Evey had taken over the Pentagon renovation program in 1997, coming from jobs as a top contracting chief for the Air Force and before that for NASA, where he negotiated contracts for the international space station. After three years of work, the Pentagon program was five days from completing the renovation of the first of five wedges.

Just inside Tennessee, he stopped at a Wendy's for an early lunch. Ashen-faced employees came to the counter and told him the news.

Evey raced back north, talking into two cell phones at once. "Tell me exactly where it hit," he instructed his top deputy, Michael Sullivan. The jet had cut diagonally through the newly renovated wedge. Years of work had gone up in flames, but Evey felt overwhelming relief when they told him that the building had stood up for 35 minutes. The costly structural improvements they'd made to the wedge bought 35 priceless minutes for the hundreds who managed to escape.

Kilsheimer was at a meeting on Connecticut Avenue when he got a phone call from his office, KCE Structural Engineers, the company he founded 33 years ago. Someone had called from New York City and said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center and that they needed him up there. By the time Kilsheimer reached his office near Dupont Circle, there was a message from the Pentagon, saying that a plane had hit the building and that he was needed there.

Kilsheimer debated briefly, calculating the impact a commercial jet laden with fuel would have on a skyscraper. The towers were going to collapse, he felt certain, and there was nothing he could do about that. The Pentagon was practically his back yard. He instructed his office to call New York and say he'd help as he could, but he was on his way to the Pentagon.

At Sibley Memorial Hospital, Will Colston, a top Pentagon renovation official, was coaxing his wife through the birth of their first son. They watched the television coverage, stunned. For Colston, who would soon be tapped by Evey to manage the reconstruction, it was simultaneously one of the most joyful and terrible days of his life.

Evey made it back in six hours and stopped briefly at his home in Springfield. While he changed clothes, his wife and daughter went to a nearby McDonald's and filled the trunk of the car with hamburgers, french fries and sodas for his team.

Evey wasn't prepared for the destruction at the Pentagon. The television shots could not convey the way the smoke smelled, the way it grabbed your throat when the wind shifted. It was virulent stuff.

Kilsheimer drove as close as he could to the Pentagon, but it still took him two more hours to work his way on foot to the site. Late that afternoon, they took him to see Evey, who gave him simple instructions: Help the emergency workers. Kilsheimer's expertise with collapsed buildings was needed.

That night, Kilsheimer borrowed a firefighter's uniform and accompanied an Army general into the building. He kept tripping over his pants, which were too big, and broke his toe. They found the Navy Command Center, where more than two dozen people had died. It was hot and terrible. To their right were the remains of several victims. At his feet were two more bodies. One victim -- a man with a waxy face and blood on his mouth -- seemed to be looking at him.

"I wish we could do something for these people," the general said.

Kilsheimer replied, "I don't know what you can do, but we can fix it so you have people back here within a year." He didn't know why he said it. He had to say something. It was a very upsetting place.

The search for survivors went on for several days. Once Kilsheimer thought he heard something overhead, but when they got there, it was a body. Maybe the sound had been in his head. That had happened in Mexico City, where you wanted to hear somebody alive so badly that you imagined things.

Kilsheimer accompanied Army soldiers equipped with sophisticated listening equipment. They found many cell phones, but they were phones receiving calls from people looking for missing persons. Nobody was calling out.

He escorted FBI agents searching the crime scene and military officers trying to recover classified information, taking them as far as they could, then darting under slabs of concrete to grab sensitive hard drives or files.

Kilsheimer had no patience with bureaucracy or formalities and was soon infuriating law enforcement officials swarming over the site. Several times, FBI agents threatened to have him arrested, and the fire marshal was going to have him thrown off the job, before higher-ups intervened.

After eight days straight at the site, operating on nothing but catnaps, Kilsheimer decided to go home and began hobbling on his broken toe toward the car he had abandoned a week earlier. When he reached Route 110, he found that a chain-link fence had been erected. He wasn't going to walk back, so he started climbing the fence.

He heard a voice: "Sir, I'm supposed to kill you, sir."

Kilsheimer looked down at the MP. "So go ahead and kill me," he said. The soldier helped Kilsheimer over the fence. He made it to his home in Northwest Washington, took a shower and changed and headed back to the Pentagon.

The Man for the Job From the start, the members of Evey's team took it as a matter of course that they would rebuild. The building was going to come back as a pentagon. So they never had to wrestle with the kind of questions facing planners in New York.

Evey had never heard of Kilsheimer before Sept. 11. But Evey's construction people, including Ron Vermillion of AMEC, the renovation's prime contractor, said he was the best man for the job. For all his flamboyance, Kilsheimer was known as a conservative structural engineer who would build it right. For several days, Evey watched Kilsheimer as he bulled his away around the site, taking charge of scenes and working like a madman. That was his man.

Evey went to Kilsheimer on Friday, three days after Sept. 11, and said he wanted him to take charge of the demolition and redesign, and work with AMEC to rebuild the Pentagon.

Kilsheimer told Evey would take the job, but only under these conditions: I follow no rules but my own rules; I won't deal with anybody wearing white shirts, except for you; and I won't deal with any lawyers or any military people except at my choice.

Kilsheimer's part of the bargain, Evey made clear, was this: You make it happen at the construction site.

That Sunday night, they signed a contract.

Then they had to wait. For two weeks, the site remained a crime scene. Evey felt helpless, his program on hold. It was the longest two weeks of his life. Finally, they took control of the site.

Team members initially thought that they would have to rebuild only relatively small areas. But analysis found that the intense heat from a fire that had burned for nearly three days had weakened the concrete in big stretches of the building. It would have to go.

Even the less-damaged areas were a bigger mess than anticipated. While the site was a crime scene, nothing had been done to dry out the soggy building, and the mold went crazy, growing on walls, computers, everything. They cut out and destroyed acres of ceiling tile, wallboard and carpeting.

All that had to be done wearing respirators and white Tyvex suits for protection from hazardous materials -- everyone but Kilsheimer, who refused to wear the "bunny suits," as he derisively called them.

Evey had planned to start demolition as soon as he gained control of the building. But with a Pentagon memorial service planned at the one-month mark, he began to have second thoughts. What's it going to be like for the families to be on that side of the building, and we're over on this side of the building just ripping the hell out of it? It didn't seem right.

They used the time to do other things -- bring in top-drawer equipment, plan the project and zero in on what needed to be taken down. The original building had gone up in 16 months during World War II; what drawings existed were not terribly good.

Kilsheimer was worried about getting limestone for the exterior, because the quarries would be closing for the winter. They contacted Bybee Stone Co. in Indiana, where the original Pentagon limestone had come from, and asked them to quarry many blocks. Bybee called back a day later and told him, don't worry, we're going to stay open for the winter to do this.

They found that attitude almost everywhere. All you had to say was, "I'm calling from the Pentagon reconstruction," and people would instantly want to help.

Demolition began Oct. 18 and continued 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Federal Emergency Management Agency brought in a huge crusher machine. It looked like a dinosaur from "Jurassic Park," Kilsheimer thought, with a huge head and the ability to crush anything in its path.

The demolition that some had expected to take eight months was halfway done in two weeks.

They ended up taking out close to a 400,000-square-foot rectangle, removing 56,000 tons of debris and demolishing some undamaged areas to make a clean cut, saving time and money.

The demolition did more than save time. It set the stage, Kilsheimer thought. The fact that they finished faster than expected meant that the next guy was going to beat the schedule by even more.

It was about time that the reconstruction got a name. Les Hunkele, one of the project managers, had sent a note to Evey. There had been a terrible fire, and now the Pentagon would rise from the ashes. They should call it the Phoenix Project.

Pentagon Rises Again The destruction had finished, and now it was time for the resurrection.

Rebar went up, cement was poured, and the momentum kept building through the holidays. The workers made it clear that they intended to work straight through. Evey tried to shut it down over Christmas, and 64 workers protested.

In the new year, the building started coming out of the ground. The second-floor slab had been poured, and columns were rising for the third floor, visible above all the trailers and clutter on the ground. Pentagon employees, driving to work on Route 27 early in the morning with construction floodlights illuminating the building, could see it rising.

Around January, Kilsheimer could see it in people's eyes, too.

All his life, he had been a maniac about work, but his pace at the Pentagon was extreme, even for Kilsheimer. He'd go to sleep about 10 p.m. and be wide awake by midnight. A half-hour later, he'd be at his office and work until 4:20 a.m, when he'd drive to the Pentagon for the day's first meeting at 4:30 a.m. He'd eat an apple on the way for breakfast.

His work ethic came from his parents. They were German Jews who had escaped the Nazis with the help of an American reporter who had intervened when his mother, pregnant with him, was about to be dragged off a train. They settled in Washington, and his father went to work as a butcher. Both parents died when he was young.

Kilsheimer worked construction jobs and earned an engineering degree from George Washington University. He had four decades in the field, but the Pentagon was the event of a lifetime.

"It's like I've been in training my whole life for this," Kilsheimer told his wife. "I just didn't know it."

Kilsheimer had commandeered space in the fire station for the Pentagon's heliport, and it was like a construction trailer, with dirt and dust everywhere, and rot-gut coffee in the back. Managers who normally don't get dirty would show up there every day at the early morning meetings with contractors.

Construction firms that were normally competitors were working together. Nobody argued over who got what job. It was who could do the job fastest and best, and who could stay awake the longest. The deal was that everybody left their egos in the Pentagon's south parking lot, except Kilsheimer.

Evey was at the construction site at least three days a week at 5:30 in the morning just to shake hands. The 24/7 pace had evolved to 20 hours a day, six days a week by the spring, and it was still frenetic. On a typical job, they'd still be forming committees and voting on working hours, he thought.

Construction was like war, Evey believed. He knew. He had been an infantry platoon leader and company commander in combat operations with the 1st Infantry Division at Quan Loi in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. Every day, things happened you never expected.

It was a badly held secret that government people treated contractors as if they were the enemy, Evey felt. They get the crummy offices and crummy furniture. The 300 people on the renovation team included only 30 government employees, and the rest were contractors. If I treat them like second-class citizens, what the hell am I doing to my team?

More fundamentally, Evey changed the nature of contracts for the Pentagon renovation program. Most contracts assume failure and set up rules by which the government and the contractors could slap each other silly when things went wrong. Why don't we write contracts that contemplate success, Evey asked. Earlier, he had instituted an award-fee approach with plenty of incentives for contractors. Since then, they had had no delays or litigation. Now it was paying dividends.

Milestones a Blur With the coming of spring, the milestones started racing by. The first limestone went up on the facade at the end of February. About the six-month mark, a display clock counting down to Sept. 11 was erected. In April, the roof was finished. The team printed almost 40,000 Phoenix Project stickers and ordered 4,000 jackets.

The project had reached celebrity status. Actress Bo Derek came out to sign construction workers' hard hats. Elementary school children from Spotsylvania County raised $515 in a penny drive and brought pizza for the workers. Congress passed a resolution honoring the crews.

But nothing inspired the workers like Liz Howell. Her husband, Brady, 26, had dreamed for years about working at the Pentagon. He was pulling a shift doing intelligence work when he died Sept. 11 in the Navy Command Center, the terrible place Kilsheimer saw that night. Liz Howell, 26, lived in Pentagon City, and as she mourned her husband, seeing the reconstruction had ignited her soul.

She toured the site and then came several more times. In the spring, she attended one of the 7 a.m. foremen's meeting with Kilsheimer, and she got up the nerve to speak to the two dozen or so contractors gathered around the table. Your work is doing more than healing the scars of the building; you're helping the survivors and families heal their scars, she told them. Liz Howell didn't cry as she spoke, but nearly all the contractors were shielding their eyes by the time she finished.

They gave her her own hard hat, safety glasses and "Let's Roll" jacket, so she could come back any time she wanted. In June, when the final limestone was placed on the Pentagon's exterior, she set the next-to-last piece.

The Phoenix Project was in the home stretch. There was plenty of work still to be done inside the building, but nobody doubted that they would finish by Sept. 11.

After giving a year of their lives to the project, returning to normal life could prove hard. Kilsheimer will probably blow apart on Sept. 12, his wife says.

The Pentagon renovation will continue at full throttle, with the completion date accelerated four years to 2010. But Evey will not be there to see it through. After 32 years, he will retire from government service Sept 16. He had expected to retire last January, but Sept. 11 changed that.

Two weeks ago, Kilsheimer visited the cemetery where his parents are buried, off New Hampshire Avenue in Prince George's County. It was the first time he'd been able to make it there since Sept. 11. He told his parents he had been able to pay back a debt the family owed to America.

Sept. 14: Rescue workers flood the crash scene, eager to help. That attitude also was pervasive during the reconstruction, with crews voluntarily working round-the-clock.Nov. 28: Workers prepare rebar for new columns at the crash site. Large sections were compromised while fire burned for nearly three days.Jan. 3: The building starts rising, as Pentagon employees can see as they drive to work on Route 27. Construction emerges above clutter.June 10: The facade nears completion, with the placement of the last of 4,000 slabs of limestone. The quarry stayed open to produce the stone.March 12: Construction milestones, including completion of the roof, race by as spring arrives. Six months have passed since Sept. 11.

August 2002: W. Lee Evey, head of the reconstruction effort, knew nothing about construction, but he knew how to motivate workers who were eager to make the Pentagon whole again. Evey, 55, will retire Sept. 16.Quickly rebuilding the Pentagon is not only "part of the mental health of the building, it's part of the mental health of the whole country," says W. Lee Evey, head of the reconstruction.Recently completed reinforcements gave many employees time to escape the burning building.