The first thing to understand is that, until the moment American Airlines Flight 77 actually struck the Pentagon at 9:38 that morning, the three men heard nothing. The rest of us in the Washington, D.C. area may live with the noise of passenger jets flying in and out of Reagan National Airport every minute, but everyone working in the great, pentagonal building, located almost directly beneath its northern flight path, labors insulated from that roar. Some of the same measures that secured the hum of its phones, computers and code machines from the electronic snoopers outside also muffled the deafening rumble of fuel-freighted airliners screaming by overhead. Nobody ever thought of them as flying bombs.
The second thing to recognize is that none of the three knew one another. They were three human cogs in the 24,000-strong Pentagon workforce. They were assigned to different floors in separate rings of offices, disparate bureaucratic kingdoms within the concentric, five-sided design that gives the world’s largest office building its name. Had it not been for Osama bin Laden, the three might never have met.
Of course, in the end none of that mattered. The three men were welded together for the rest of their lives by a half-hour hellscape of searing flame and shattered bodies and smoke so thick and suffocating they coughed up black sludge from their lungs for days.
“It was raining molten metal and plastic,” remembers Capt. David M. Thomas, Jr., 44, a distant look of intensity in his eyes. “The soldered connections in the overhead wiring and the insulation were melting. I took off my uniform blouse because it had polyester in it and I was sure it would melt. I was wearing just my cotton T-shirt. But then the molten liquid from the ceiling dripped on more of my body. The drops made little black holes as they burned through my skin.”
“I didn’t want to go in there,” says Lt. Cmdr. David Tarantino, 36, remembering the moment he reached the crash site. “It was like an apocalypse.”
Tarantino, a Navy physician who helps coordinate humanitarian relief efforts for the Department of Defense, had rushed from his fourth-floor office in the centermost A ring (the building, like a tree, has concentric rings, each configured pentagonally) at the moment he felt a “violent shudder” of the building. He had just returned from a meeting to find colleagues watching the burning World Trade Center on television, had seen the second plane hit and was sure that now the Pentagon, too, had come under attack. But he recalls hearing no noise when Flight 77 struck the building.
Tarantino, a 6-foot-4, 180-pound triathlete who had rowed crew for Stanford, ran down one of the corridors radiating from the Pentagon’s central courtyard. The hallway was filled with smoke and with coughing, bleeding people who were stumbling around, disoriented. The heat and smoke, rising to ceiling height, had effectively hidden all exit signs. Many were uncertain, amid the wailing fire-alarm sirens, which way to go. Grabbing some wet paper towels from a nearby rest room as a rudimentary gas mask, and working his way from floor to floor, Tarantino helped direct people toward the courtyard. Then, turning against the flow of people fleeing to safety, he headed toward what appeared to be the point of greatest destruction.
Between B and C rings, radial corridors transect an open-air ring: a breezeway, into which Tarantino lurched to get some air. There he saw two large smoking holes in the C-ring walls and what was clearly the forward landing gear and huge tire of a jetliner. There were also body parts. “I may be a doctor,” he says, “but nothing prepares you for that kind of devastation.”
People were trying to fight their way into the holes with fire extinguishers. They couldn’t stay long. It was like a blast furnace. “Is anybody in there?” Tarantino yelled.
Dave Thomas worked on C ring, in a section two corridors away from the airliner’s impact point. Thomas is a second-generation Naval officer with two brothers in the Navy and one in the Marines. From December 1998 to July 2000, he had been skipper of the USS Ross, one of the new missile-studded Arleigh Burke class destroyers that are the pride of the Navy’s surface fleet. Now ashore, he was working on the quadrennial defense review for the Chief of Naval Operations. The report was due September 30.