The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On 9/11, as the Pentagon burned, the White House couldn’t find Donald Rumsfeld

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, center, walks back into the Pentagon after helping at the crash site on Sept. 11, 2001. (U.S. Army/Department of Defense)
Placeholder while article actions load

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was at the Pentagon, sitting at a round wooden table that once belonged to Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman.

He was watching television images from New York, where two planes had just slammed into the World Trade Center.

Suddenly, the walls began shaking. Then the table.

“Sherman had famously commented that ‘war is hell,’ ” Rumsfeld wrote in his 2011 memoir. “Hell had descended on the Pentagon.”

What was Trump actually doing on 9/11? An anniversary fact check.

Rumsfeld suspected another plane had hit the five-sided concrete fortress — a hulking symbol of American war power. He raced through smoke and jet fuel fumes to reach the crash site. Nearly there, an Air Force lieutenant colonel told him, “You can’t go farther.”

But Rumsfeld was Rumsfeld. He could do whatever he darn well pleased.

“Outside I found fresh air and a chaotic scene,” he wrote. “For the first time I could see the clouds of black smoke rising from the west side of the building. I ran along the Pentagon’s perimeter, and then saw the flames.”

F-16 pilot was ready to give her life on Sept. 11

But Rumsfeld, a highly quotable Washington hand whose famous quips include a soliloquy on “known unknowns,” did not know he was a known unknown at the White House.

“At first we thought Secretary Rumsfeld had been hit,” White House aide Mary Matalin said in Garrett M. Graff’s “The Only Plane in the Sky,” his new oral history of the attacks. “We couldn’t get a location on the secretary of defense.”

By then, Rumsfeld was standing near the point of attack.

“He was like the captain going down with the ship,” Aubrey Davis, a Defense Department protective service officer, said in Graff’s book.

Davis remembered Rumsfeld bending down to pick up part of the plane.

“This is American Airlines,” he said.

There were bodies and debris all around him. In his memoir, titled “Known and Unknown,” he wrote:

A few folks from the Pentagon were there doing what they could to assist the wounded. I saw some in uniform running back into the burning building, hoping to bring more of the injured out. “We need help over here,” I heard someone say. I ran over. One young woman sitting in the grass, wounded, bruised, and a bit bloodied, looked up at me and squinted. Even though she couldn’t stand she said, “I can help. I can hold an IV.”

Meanwhile, there was an urgent unknown: Rumsfeld’s location.

“The Communications Center kept asking where the secretary was,” Davis said in Graff’s book, “and I kept saying we had him. They couldn’t hear.”

Officials in the Pentagon’s command center thought he’d been whisked to a secure site. Nope. Rumsfeld was still out among the wreckage, where the dead would number 184.

“The next thing we know,” Victoria Clarke, Rumsfeld’s then-spokeswoman, said in Graff’s book, “he had come in to the command center — dirty, sweaty, with his jacket over his shoulder.”

He was ready for war — a war still being waged in Afghanistan 18 years later. It is the longest conflict in U.S. history and has taken the lives of more than 2,400 Americans.

Former president George W. Bush and former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld participated in a ceremony at the Pentagon Memorial on Sept. 11, 2019. (Video: The Washington Post)

For Rumsfeld, the chaotic scene, the fires, the bodies, the debris — those images, seen up close with his own eyes, came to define him, the country and the rest of many lives.

“Our building,” he wrote, “became a battleground.” That piece of aircraft he picked up — it has become a reminder “of the loss of life, of our country’s vulnerability to terrorists, and of our duty to prevent more attacks of that kind.”


A previous version of this story incorrectly credited a photo to CNN. It was taken by WUSA-TV, which CNN later discovered when it used some of the footage.

Read more Retropolis:

The photo of the doomed 9/11 ‘Dust Lady’ still haunts us after all these years

The most iconic photos from Sept. 11 and its aftermath

#LostTrumpHistory: Trump’s 9/11 claims become a George Conway-pushed meme

The rookie pilot who was ready to give her life on Sept. 11