The tragic story of September 11, 2001 is inextricably tied to aviation, including the heroic efforts of the firefighters from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport’s fire department. They were among the first to respond to the crash of American Airlines Flight 77, which was hijacked and flown into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.
The National Air and Space Museum is recognizing that awful day and commemorating the National Airport firefighters with the acquisition of Foam 331, the first of two foam trucks to arrive that morning. Foam-carrying rescue trucks, often called “crash trucks,” are designed for the challenges of fighting fires resulting from aircraft accidents. These trucks use chemical foam to smother burning aviation fuel and are designed to drive over rough terrain near civil and military airfields. The Boeing 757 that was flown into the building on September 11 had nearly 20 tons of fuel on board. The Pentagon’s own foam truck had been heavily damaged, which made National Airport’s trucks the primary means of fighting the fire in those initial hours following the attack.
As members of the aircraft rescue and firefighting community, these first responders had critical experience in dealing with mass casualty events. The official Department of Defense history of the attack on the Pentagon offers a harrowing narrative of what confronted them: “In the first minutes, while some firefighters searched near the impact site, others set up the fire suppression equipment as rapidly as possible, with the immediate imperative to suppress the external fires caused by the spewed jet fuel that saturated whatever lay in its path. The explosion had generated a huge fireball that blasted outward, up and over the building…. Initial search and rescue missions were exceedingly dangerous. The firefighters did not know how far the fire had spread nor to what degree the building’s structural integrity was compromised.”
Foam 331’s journey to the Museum began in 1997, when it was purchased by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. It was stationed at National Airport and then later at Washington Dulles International Airport before being sold in 2016 to a Canadian airport services operator, which planned to use it for parts. By 2019, the truck had been sold back to the manufacturer, Oshkosh Corporation, for scrap. Bill Stewart, a retired firefighter and training captain at National Airport, went looking for the truck as a way of honoring 9/11 first responders. After the truck was located, Stewart and the Museum worked with Oshkosh to have it prepped for display.
Visitors to the Museum can see Foam 331 at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.
This article is from the Fall issue of Air & Space Quarterly, the National Air and Space Museum's signature magazine that explores topics in aviation and space, from the earliest moments of flight to today. Explore the full issue.
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