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Uncommon Valor

When two Naval officers entered the inferno of the Pentagon's west flank to search for survivors, they put their own lives on the line

When Flight 77 hit, all Thomas could think was that his best friend worked in that section of the building. Bob Dolan had been like a brother since their days rooming together at Annapolis . He had been the best man at Thomas’ wedding and was godfather to one of his kids. No one outside Thomas’ immediate family was more important to him.

Racing down a stairway, Thomas made his way through the smoke to the breezeway and the giant tire and the gaping holes. Inside one of the holes, he heard voices behind a door.

Somebody handed him a metal bar and he pounded on the door. But, like many secure areas in the Pentagon, it was sealed with an electric cipher lock. The door wouldn’t give. He knew he had to find another way in. Grabbing a fire extinguisher, he crawled into the smaller of the two holes.

“The plane had punched through an electrical closet; all these live wires were lying around and arcing in the water [from sprinklers or burst mains]. You had to crawl over the wires through the water while you were getting shocked. There was so much smoke, you could not see. But I had grabbed a flashlight from somewhere, and two people on the floor inside were able to see the beam of light and make their way out past me. I saw the head of another guy. I knew we had to get him out, but I wasn’t sure I could. It was all you could do in there just to breathe.”

Thomas had grabbed a wet T-shirt to breathe through and protect his balding scalp. Then, with his shoes literally melting on his feet, he crawled forward, into the firestorm of molten rain. The shattered room he was entering was part of the new Navy Command Center , a vast war room filled with the techno-ganglia of cyber communications. One of the 50-odd staffers who worked there was Jerry Henson, a 65- year-old former Navy commander who had returned to the Pentagon after retirement. He liked being at the center of things. (One of the little-known secrets of the Pentagon is that, while activeduty officers rotate in and out of these offices during their careers, nominal civilians like Henson maintain a crucial continuity in vital departments.)

He, too, had returned to his office from a meeting in time to see the second jet hit the World Trade Center . Moments later, the lights went out.

“It was like being hit in the head with a baseball bat,” he remembers. “There was no sense of gradualism, or of the plane coming through the walls or anything like that. I heard one loud report, and all of a sudden it was dark and hot, and the air was filled with smoke and the smell of jet fuel. I couldn’t move. And I was in excruciating pain.”

A huge wall of debris—ceiling, bookcases, wallboard, desks, plumbing—had slammed into him, pinning his head between his computer monitor and his left shoulder. The rubble probably would have crushed him, but his desk top had dislocated across the arms of his chair, imprisoning him but supporting most of the weight.

“There were two enlisted people nearby on the floor, but they couldn’t get to me. It was pitch dark and suffocating in the smoke. We were all coughing and strangling and yelling for help but never heard any answer from the other side of the wall. The room was burning and melting around us.”

Henson didn’t dwell on the fact that he might die. He had spent 21 years in the Navy, flown 72 combat missions in Vietnam and been trained for emergency response. “Every fiber of my being was focused on getting out of there,” he says. “I had nothing left for anything else.”

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