Pen­tagon catas­tro­phe could have been worse

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

As the Pen­tagon Memo­rial opened last week, Amer­i­cans re­called that Sept. 11, 2001, wasn’t just a New York phe­nom­e­non. For most of us, im­ages of the Twin Tow­ers burn­ing, col­laps­ing and smol­der­ing form the men­tal slide show that de­fines our mem­ory of that aw­ful day. But events along the Po­tomac that Sept. 11 could have ri­valed the un­think­able hor­ror along the Hud­son. Hun­dreds more could have been killed by the Boe­ing757 that slammed into the Pen­tagon — in­clud­ing much of the mil­i­tary lead­er­ship. And the na­tion’s mil­i­tary head­quar­ters could eas­ily have been knocked out of com­mis­sion, without a backup fa­cil­ity firmly in place.

As it turned out, the death toll at the Pen­tagon — 184 — stunned peo­ple who worked there, but it was a frac­tion of the 2,750 killed in New York. In stark con­trast to the col­lapsed Tow­ers, the Pen­tagon opened for busi­ness on Sept. 12 (though just barely). And within 14 months, the Pen­tagon was en­tirely re­built, while Ground Zero in New York was still a vast, dis­mal crater yield­ing re­mains.

But chance de­vel­op­ments — or bet­ter plan­ning by the hi­jack­ers — could have in­flicted much more dam­age on the Pen­tagon and the U.S. mil­i­tary. Hani Han­jour, a Saudi be­lieved to be at the con­trols of Amer­i­can Air­lines Flight 77 af­ter it was hi­jacked, was a mar­ginal pi­lot who had never flown a com­mer­cial jet. His ap­proach to the Pen­tagon was wob­bly and er­ratic. Yet at roughly 9:37 a.m., he man­aged to fly the 757 smack into the first floor of the Pen­tagon’s west­ern wall, at 530 miles per hour. The force of the im­pact and the fire that fol­lowed con­sumed 800,000 square feet of of­fice space — an area big­ger than the Mall of Amer­ica. On a nor­mal work­day, more than 5,000 peo­ple would have been work­ing in that area.

Yet that part of the Pen­tagon was un­der ren­o­va­tion at the time, with many of the offices va­cant. The hi­jack­ers could have known that: Plenty of news­pa­per re­ports and even De­fense Depart­ment press re­leases detailed the ren­o­va­tion plans, with di­a­grams show­ing which parts of the build­ing would be un­der construction, and when.

Had the ter­ror­ists flown Flight 77 into a fully oc­cu­pied wing of the build­ing, there’s lit­tle doubt the death toll would have been much higher. Hit­ting the third floor in­stead of the first would have sent ex­plo­sive force both up­ward and down­ward, leav­ing lit­tle or no time for peo­ple on the Pen­tagon’s up­per floors to es­cape. It was prob­a­bly be­yond Han­jour’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties, but if he had man­aged to nose-dive the plane into an in­ter­nal part of the build­ing, in­stead of smash­ing into one of the sides, the fire and smoke could have cir­cum­nav­i­gated the struc­ture in­stead of stop­ping on one side. That would have been a night­mare sce­nario for fire­fight­ers; as it was, they had great dif­fi­culty get­ting fire equip­ment into the build­ing’s cen­ter court­yard and press­ing in on the fire from a mere two sides.

The ter­ror­ists also could have known enough about the Pen­tagon’s leaders to tar­get some of them di­rectly. The De­fense Depart­ment it­self had pub­lished the lo­ca­tion of the de­fense sec­re­tary’s of­fice in an easyto-find his­tory of the Pen­tagon. Any­body who took one of the pub­lic tours of the Pen­tagon — which back then re­quired only a photo ID — would have been able to dis­cern where many of the Joint Staff offices were lo­cated.

Had Flight 77 struck that side of the build­ing, the at­tack could have par­a­lyzed the De­fense Depart­ment. De­fense Sec­re­tary Don­ald Rums­feld was in his of­fice that day. So was his deputy, Paul Wol­fowitz, and many other top of­fi­cials who line the cor­ri­dors around the sec­re­tary’s of­fice.

In­stead, when Flight 77 flew through the wall on the op­po­site side of the Pen­tagon, peo­ple on the de­fense sec­re­tary’s side merely felt a shud­der, like a freight el­e­va­tor com­ing to a hard land­ing.

Yet even with the fire on the other side of the build­ing, it was touc­hand-go in­side the Pen­tagon’s vi­tal ar­eas. In the Na­tional Mil­i­tary Com­mand Cen­ter — the Joint Staff’s “war room” — haze built as smoke drift­ing over the Pen­tagon wafted in through ven­ti­la­tion fans on the roof. Fire chiefs won­dered why the Pen­tagon brass didn’t bug out and move to a backup fa­cil­ity. But there was no backup fa­cil­ity, not ini­tially, any­way. Early in the day, the Pen­tagon be­gan to ac­ti­vate Site R, the se­cret backup com­mand cen­ter in the Mary­land woods, near Camp David.

But it took sev­eral hours to aug­ment the skele­ton crews man­ning the site, fly se­nior leaders there by he­li­copter, and fully es­tab­lish se­cure com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Un­til that hap­pened, the NMCC and the ESC rep­re­sented a sin­gle point of fail­ure in the mil­i­tary chain of com­mand. Had the ter­ror­ists taken out that part of the Pen­tagon, Sept. 11 could have rep­re­sented the big­gest dis­rup­tion ever to Amer­ica’s mil­i­tary lead­er­ship.

There are a lot of what-if sce­nar­ios re­lat­ing to Sept. 11, of course. What if United 93, which crashed in Shanksville, Pa., killing 40, had made it all the way to Wash­ing­ton? What would it have struck? What if more planes had been hi­jacked? What if fighter jets had been in place to shoot down the doomed planes? What if the hi­jack­ers had missed their tar­gets al­to­gether?

They’re not just aca­demic ques­tions. At the Pen­tagon, the what-if sce­nar­ios have served as a vul­ner­a­bil­ity as­sess­ment, help­ing make backup fa­cil­i­ties and emer­gency pro­ce­dures now more ro­bust. Key offices now re­side in more se­cure lo­ca­tions. Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties ex­posed on Sept. 11 (in­clud­ing those dis­cussed in this ar­ti­cle) have been rec­ti­fied.

Un­der­stand­ing the flaws in the hi­jack­ing plan also helps dis­pel some of the mys­tique of al Qaeda. The Sept. 11 at­tacks were a one-time mas­ter­stroke that ex­ploited weak­nesses we didn’t even know ex­isted. But al Qaeda also failed to learn ba­sic facts sit­ting in plain view.

Then there were the Pen­tagon vic­tims. Hun­dreds of their sur­vivors gath­ered last week on the Pen­tagon’s west­ern lawn , for the ded­i­ca­tion of the first na­tional Sept. 11 memo­rial, a two-acre park aligned with the path Flight 77 took in its fi­nal sec­ond. For each vic­tim there is a bench, in­scribed with his or her name, and a small re­flect­ing pool un­der­neath. It’s a sub­tle, un­der­stated place that would be easy to over­look if you didn’t know it was there. The 184 peo­ple it hon­ors died just as trag­i­cally as the vic­tims in Man­hat­tan — but then they be­came a side­bar to the even more har­row­ing nar­ra­tive that emerged from New York. For a mo­ment, they com­manded Amer­ica’s at­ten­tion. Rick New­man and Pa­trick Creed are co-au­thors of “Fire­fight: The Bat­tle to Save the Pen­tagon on 9/11,” pub­lished by Bal­lan­tine in May.

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