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

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After about 15 minutes, he says, he was able to gradually dig enough rubble from around his head to straighten his neck a bit. That eased the pain. But the smoke was getting thicker; it was getting harder and harder to breathe. The increasing rain of solder and plastic from the ceiling told him the room couldn’t last much longer. Then he saw the beam of a flashlight.

David Tarantino had worked his way with a fire extinguisher over the snarl of live wires into the smaller of the two holes in the breezeway wall, throwing aside flaming debris as he went. Somehow the physician had chosen a slightly different route from Thomas’. “When I finally saw Jerry, he was looking right at me,” Tarantino remembers. “We made eye contact. I yelled, ‘Come on, man, get out of there! You got to get out of there.’ I wanted him to come to me. I didn’t want to go where he was. It was hell in there.”

But Henson still couldn’t move. Thomas had reached him from the other side of the debris pile but couldn’t budge the rubble pinning him down. Henson couldn’t see Thomas. He could see Tarantino, but was fading in and out of consciousness from smoke inhalation. “I was near the end,” Henson says. “I had maybe five minutes left.”

Tarantino knew time was running out. “He crawled in through all that fire and dripping metal and lay down beside me,” Henson says. “He said, ‘I’m a doctor and I’m here to get you out.’ Then he lay on his back and leg-pressed that wall of debris enough so I could squeeze over the chair arm.” Tarantino inched Henson out, and Thomas freed him the rest of the way. Henson recalls, “Tarantino had the bruises from my fingers on his arms for a week.”

The three men had made it into the breezeway when the command center’s interior structure collapsed. Cmdr. Craig Powell, a Navy SEAL, had singlehandedly held up part of a flaming wall that had kept their escape route open.

One hundred twenty-five people died at the Pentagon, not counting the more than 60 passengers, crew and hijackers aboard Flight 77. More than a hundred others were injured in the explosion and fire. Jerry Henson was treated at the scene for head cuts and given an IV and oxygen and hospitalized for four days, mostly for smoke inhalation problems. He was back at work a month later.

He still doesn’t wholly understand why he didn’t burn to death but says the rubble that trapped him probably shielded him from the worst of the fire. And the Pentagon sprinkler system, or what was left of it, may have watered him at some point. “I was soaked to the skin when they finally dragged me to the courtyard,” he says. “But I don’t remember getting wet.”

Thomas and Tarantino suffered burns on their hands, knees and feet as well as smoke inhalation. Both were back at work the next day.

“I don’t have words to describe how brave they were,” Henson says of his rescuers. “There’s a limit to what’s intelligent to do” on behalf of someone else. “They exceeded that. Their heroism is a step beyond what any medal could recognize.”

Tarantino appears uncomfortable with talk like that. When he and Thomas got Henson into the central courtyard September 11, Thomas tore Tarantino’s nametag from his blouse and pocketed it. “Remember that name!” he told the still-groggy survivor. “Tarantino! That’s who saved you!”

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