Pentagon catastrophe could have been worse
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.