Just looking at the column of dark smoke rising over Arlington, they could tell something horrible had happened.
Riding up Route 27 about two minutes after a jet had slammed into the Pentagon, the Arlington County rescue crew met a stream of stunned people flowing from the nation’s military headquarters and a raging fire behind them.
“It just looked like devastation,” said Lt. Scott Hagan, who was one of the first rescuers to reach the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. “And we had no idea it was part of something much bigger.”
Hagan and other Arlington fire and rescue officials said the death of Osama bin Laden brought back many of the stark memories they carry from that day nearly a decade ago. But they also said that while bin Laden’s demise was a significant moment and an important military achievement, it does not erase the threats the United States faces.
Still vivid are the pungent jet fuel, the acrid smoke, the shattered fuselage, the bodies. The badly burned helping the more seriously wounded. The hole the nose cone made in the C-Ring wall.
“It takes a lot away from you,” said Capt. Ed Blunt, 50, who now commands a fire and rescue station on Lee Highway. “We see a lot of really horrible things. Most of them are accidental, but this was intentional.”
Blunt said he has thought about Sept. 11 almost every day he has headed to work, but with the knowledge that bin Laden is dead, it added a small level of satisfaction.
“It’s a very important part of history,” Blunt said. “But we’re not naive. We know they’ll try to come at us again.”
Lt. Gregg Karl, 37, said he was a rookie at the time and was amazed to see such a blatant attack on the nation’s most important military installation.
“You realize that we are vulnerable like everyone else, that we’re not invincible,” Karl said. “I wondered what kind of person would think to do these things to people.”
Karl said bin Laden’s death was simply the end of a successful mission and a reminder that the country needs to stay vigilant.
For Hagan, bin Laden’s death did not change anything. What it did, he said, was send a message.
“It’s not a shock or a relief,” Hagan said. “I knew it was a matter of time. It’s so impressive what our military capabilities are. It’s a good message that we as a country don’t give up until we get the job done.”