Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families
Friday, November 17, 2006
And Now It Begins
Heading Into Combat
I remember the golden globe in the vast courtyard between the two buildings and a spattering fountain next to cold stone benches. Inside, I would look up in awe at the cathedral-like glass, the suspended walkways, and the grand, vaulted ceilings rising ten stories, crowned with a diadem of crystal chandeliers. I remember the large fabric hanging artwork. I can still smell the concourse level's red carpets when they were new. I was eleven. I remember sitting on those red carpets, reading my schoolbooks, imagining I was in the city's most elegant reading room.
Now, up there on floors so high no hook and ladder could ever reach, a man in a tattered and burned white business shirt stands in a broken window with flames licking at him and smoke billowing around him. I see someone let go, briefly flying. I read later hundreds did the same. Hundreds.
I remember spending many summer afternoons and twilights as a teenager sitting on top of the South Tower, sometimes reading poetry or a book, the raucous sound of the city muted and far below. I was listening only to the air passing by me, my mind wandering.
A second plane slams into the South Tower. The explosion sounds like thunder.
I remember closing my eyes outside in the open air up there and feeling the sun's warmth on my face. No matter how hot it was on those city streets below, there were always cool breezes at more than a thousand feet up. The Tower would gently sway from the wind. It was unnerving at first, but after a while, I remember feeling comforted like a child being rocked back and forth. I wasn't worried she'd tip over. Ever.
The president addresses the nation and the world. He says to us, the Armed Forces, "Be ready."
- Forty-four-year-old Petty Officer First Class Gregory S. Cleghorne, born and raised in Brooklyn, New York.
Captain William J. Toti
Just before 9:00 a.m., as word spread rapidly throughout the Pentagon, military and civilian personnel alike began huddling around television sets to watch breaking news about a plane crashing into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. "I am sitting at my desk when I hear someone yell, 'Oh my God!'" forty-four-year- old Captain William J. Toti wrote in a detailed, present-tense account of what he was doing on September 11, 2001. Toti had enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age seventeen, while he was still in high school, and eventually became a career submariner. In 1997, he was given command of the nuclear fast-attack submarine USS Indianapolis, based in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and named after the legendary World War II cruiser. On the morning of September 11, Toti was in the Pentagon, serving as the special assistant to the vice chief of naval operations. "I glance up at the television to see the World Trade Center on fire," he continued in his narrative.
I walk into my outer office, turn up the volume, and hear the anchor theorize that the cause of impact is some sort of technological malfunction. We know immediately that there is no way navigational failure could cause an airliner to fly accidentally into a building on a bright clear day. By the time the second plane hits the Trade Center's South Tower, we all realize this is a major terrorist attack.
What Toti and his colleagues did not know was that a third plane, American Airlines flight 77, was heading straight for them.
I quickly go back to my desk to call my wife, but nobody is there. I leave a voice message, telling her to take the kids out of school, stay home, and keep the telephone lines open.
As I hang up the phone and walk back to the outer office, I hear the sound of an approaching airplane, the whine of the engines growing louder and louder. And then impact-a massive earthquake-like jolt. There is screaming everywhere, and the halls immediately fill with dust and smoke. There is no time to think. I sprint down the hall behind two other Navy officers toward the point of impact.
My office is on the fourth floor of the E-ring, which is between the fifth and sixth corridors of the Pentagon. The plane has hit between the third and fourth corridors. We run through a brown haze that I learn weeks later was a combination of vaporized aviation fuel and particle asbestos that had been shaken loose from the ceiling. We pass through an area that recently had been abandoned for renovation and into a newly renovated, fully occupied area containing our operations center.
I finally reach the fissure-a gaping hole of sunlight where there should be building. The floor simply has dropped out, and parts of the airplane are visible, burning not fifty feet below us. It does not take us long to figure out that everybody on our floor who is still alive has evacuated, and that there is nothing we can do for anybody in the pit.
I run outside to the point of impact, and I encounter total devastation. Aircraft parts, most no larger than a sheet of paper, litter the field. I can make out, on one of the larger pieces of aluminum, a red A from american airlines. A column of black smoke rises into the air, bending toward the Potomac over the top of the building.
I start to wonder, Where is everybody? Thousands of people work in that building, there should be hundreds streaming out of the emergency exits right now. But at first I see no evacuees. Then as I round the corner of the heliport utility building, I notice a very small number of walking wounded, and then, on the ground before me, one gravely injured man. He is a Pentagon maintenance worker who is burned so badly that I can't tell whether he is white or black. Amazingly, he is still conscious. An Army officer is kneeling beside him, and since we are just a few feet from the still-burning building, the soldier says, "Let's get him out of here." A few more military men gather, and we carry him away from the building to the edge of Route 27, where the first ambulance has just pulled up.
As the EMTs tend to him, I look back down toward the building and see an open emergency exit, thick black smoke billowing out. There's some sort of movement inside the doorway, and it appears as if someone has fallen, so I run back down the hill and into the building.
Just a few feet inside I almost stumble over a lady crawling toward the door. She can't stand up, and I try to lift her, but I'm having trouble because sheets of her skin are coming off in my hands. I call for help, and two Army officers respond immediately. Then, as we hear-and feel-a series of secondary explosions just a few yards away, the three of us half-carry, half-drag the woman to the top of the hill, where we place her by the maintenance worker as a second ambulance arrives.
Third-degree burns cover her. But she is conscious and lucid, and a man with a blue traffic vest proclaiming pentagon physician stops to examine her. So I leave, confident that she is in good hands, and run back down the hill to help evacuate another of the wounded.
When we attempt to lift a badly burned man, he screams out, "Let go! Don't touch me!" Just then we hear more explosions coming from the fissure which we fear are bombs (but later learn are the airliner's oxygen tanks cooking off), so we carry this man out of there with him screaming the whole way.
When we arrive at the top of the hill with the second man, I notice that the woman we had just carried up the hill is becoming agitated, saying, "I can't breathe." I call over to an EMT, "Do you have any oxygen?" He runs to the back of his rig, pulls out a bottle, and puts it on her. As the flow begins and she starts to calm down, she looks at me like she wants to say something. I kneel down beside her and say, "Is that better, are you all right?"
And then comes the moment I'll never forget. She blinks and asks, "Doctor, am I going to die?" Wham. Just like that. That is a question that I never imagined myself having to answer. I look around our little triage area on the side of the road-
The first injured man I had come across is no longer conscious and is doing poorly.
Another young lady is standing nearby with severely burned hands, screaming hysterically.
A soldier is trying to chase down a fire truck that has become lost in the maze of roads surrounding the Pentagon.
Other officers are attending to the walking wounded, and someone is pouring water from a five-gallon cooler bottle onto people as they exit the building to extinguish the small fires on their clothing.
-And here lies this woman, with no one to attend to her but me. What should I say? Should I tell her I am not a doctor? But there are no answers to be found, so I lean over the lady and ask, "What's your name?"
"Antoinette," she says.
"No, Antoinette, you're not going to die. We have a helicopter coming for you. I'm going to stay with you until you're on it."
She nods, and I feel relieved for having said this.
The medevac helicopter arrives a few minutes later. Since the Pentagon's heliport is in the middle of the attack area, the helo has to land up the hill toward the Navy Annex, on the other side of Route 27. The trek up the hill is surprisingly long and difficult. When we finally get her to the helicopter I yell out over the noise, "I'll visit you in the hospital!" Then I turn and run down the hill without looking back.
When I arrive, the "Pentagon Physician" (who, it turns out, is actually a dentist) asks me to take charge of establishing a station to receive the "expectants," which means I am in charge of caring for those who are not expected to live. Just then one of the Defense Protective Service police shouts, "Clear the area! Another plane is coming in!" So we cram the rest of the wounded into the few ambulances present and they drive away. We move farther from the building to wait for a second attack, which never happens. This is the first of many false alarms that day.
I try several times during the morning to call my wife, but the cell phone circuits are jammed, and eventually I kill my battery trying to get through. Hence, it is several hours before she knows I am still alive.
The day is full of vivid images. At one point, a group of firefighters is inside the building, knocking out windows to vent the heat, when they come across a Marine Corps flag. They extend the bright red flag out the window to a wave of cheers.
Another time, I am going to the fissure to help an FBI agent plan his evidence walk-down. As I approach the burning core, I see a single yellow flower in a clay pot, miraculously sitting untouched amid smoldering embers and soot.
I also watch as a Catholic priest, who I later find out had walked three miles to the Pentagon from his parish in Arlington, stands over a dying man to give him his last rites. The priest then moves to another man, who is severely burned but still lucid enough to be screaming, and he repeats the sacrament. Overwhelmed by the enormity of the event, the priest walks up to the gaping hole in the building and gives absolution to all of the dead at once.
One of the great ironies of the day is that earlier, when we were saturated by wounded, there was almost no medical help available. Then later, when we had hundreds of doctors, nurses, and paramedics on the scene, we had a profound shortage of injuries that needed treatment. Those who were rescued were saved not by trained first responders, but by people who were on the scene at the moment of impact.
At about 2100, almost eleven hours after the Pentagon attack, a wave of exhaustion hits me, and I decide there is nothing more I can do. I need my wife to come for me, but I realize she will be unable to get anywhere near us. So I borrow a cell phone and tell her to start driving north on Interstate 395. I start walking south, and after about fifteen minutes a state trooper pulls over beside me and asks me if I want a ride. I tell him that if I get into his car I am afraid that my wife will never find me, so I continue walking for almost a mile, with him creeping along behind me in his patrol car, both of us traveling south in the northbound lane, until I arrive at the barricade and see my wife.
Not surprisingly, I have trouble sleeping that night. I receive calls from some friends who, during World War II, survived the sinking of the cruiser USS Indianapolis. One says, "You got hit by a kamikaze just like us." Another remarks, "You got too close to us, now you have to share our fate." And through it all, I keep thinking about things we might have done better, the possibility that we might have been able to save more people. I am comforted, however, by the thought that at least we saved one individual: Antoinette.
The days immediately after the attack are a continuous stream of fifteen-hour workdays. I never find the time to make good on my promise to visit Antoinette. I know that she is in the Washington Hospital Center, and I call to check up on her, but then move on to what seem like more pressing matters. The urgent eclipses the important.
On September 19, I open The Washington Post and find a story about Antoinette. Thirty-five years old, budget analyst, raising a teenage foster child by herself. Two dogs, Oreo and Rex. Had been on the phone with a friend before the plane hit the Pentagon, planning a cruise together, just a month later. She was wheeled into the emergency room fully conscious. But despite hours of surgery, she never opened her eyes again. She had been burned over 70 percent of her body. She died on September 18.
I had only known Antoinette for a few moments, but I am shocked by the news and feel as if I have lost someone very close to me. I will never forget her.
During a memorial service near Ground Zero in New York, Rabbi Marc Gellman said that it is improper to think that on September 11 approximately three thousand people died. To understand the enormity of the loss, we have to recognize that what really happened was that a single individual died three thousand times.