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

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.

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.”

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!”

The doctor’s leg-press rescue, Thomas said, was “the bravest thing I’ve ever seen.” Tarantino downplays any heroics: “Once you’ve made eye contact with someone, you can’t just leave them to die.” He says his desperate legpress maneuver was more a product of adrenaline than technique—like a mother who somehow lifts a car off a child. He sprained his knee in the effort—the next day he could hardly walk—and doubts he could have gotten Henson out without Thomas.

With a heavy heart, Thomas continued looking for his friend Bob Dolan, all the while grieving for what he feared Dolan’s wife and children would have to face. “His cell phone kept ringing for a couple of days when we called it, so we had hopes,” Thomas says. Dolan was confirmed among the victims; some remains were recovered. Last January 11, in the presence of Thomas and the Dolan family, he was buried at sea.

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