Pentagon feels sting of newest battlefield

Death toll soaring

Bush thanks workers as many resume jobs

Terrorism Strikes America


September 13, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman and Tom Bowman | Ellen Gamerman and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon struggled to find its missing yesterday as the death toll from Tuesday's terrorist attack promised to soar into the hundreds and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called the war against terrorism a "new battlefield."

The casualty count remained uncertain as military officials began the grim task of notifying next of kin and military chaplains tended to anxious families gathered in a hotel in Northern Virginia. Among the casualties is a three-star Army general, said officials, who declined to identify him.

"The work is still going forward, and we won't know for some time precise numbers," Rumsfeld told reporters. "We are, in a sense, seeing the definition of a new battlefield in the world, a 21st-century battlefield, and it is a different kind of conflict."

President Bush made a personal visit to the facility, arriving by helicopter late in the afternoon and touring the site shortly after a wrecking ball knocked down some debris hanging from the building's damaged facade.

"Coming here makes me sad on the one hand; it also makes me angry," he said. "The nation mourns, but our government will go on."

Bush, accompanied by Rumsfeld and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, greeted several hundred rescue workers in a Pentagon parking lot. As he worked the line shaking hands, some saluted.

Bush thanked workers for their efforts as a crew on the roof of the Pentagon draped a giant American flag over the charred concrete near the gaping hole in the building's side. When the flag unfurled, some in the crowd began to applaud, and a faint chorus of "God Bless America" could be heard in the background.

Back to work

A day after a hijacked American Airlines Boeing 757 slammed into the Pentagon, many of the building's 23,000 employees numbly went back to work. As for the building, symbol of the nation's military might, it looked like what it was, a casualty of war. The explosion left a deep, smoldering gash on the southwest side.

Inside, beyond the National Guardsmen carrying M-16 rifles, Pentagon workers told stories of heroism and struggled to process the devastation without knowing who had been killed. People greeted one another with simple words that took on new meaning: "Good to see you."

A day earlier, Army Lt. Col. Thomas J. Cleary III had just stood up at his desk, about to visit a friend in a newly renovated section of the Pentagon, when the explosion knocked him to the floor.

Cleary helped move co-workers into the corridor as people began streaming from the burning building. But Cleary did not follow them out. Instead, he stopped and turned and walked back toward the darkness.

"It was just a blanket of putrid black smoke coming up at you like a wall," Cleary, a 42-year-old budget analyst, said of the half-hour he spent yelling for his comrades, searching for the wounded and battling the choking fumes. At one point, soldiers crawled along the floor, their faces covered in soaked T-shirts to protect them from the acrid smoke.

`Dead silence'

Instead of screams, Cleary heard something almost as chilling.

"It was," he said, "dead silence."

Army personnel, who along with Navy men and women occupied most of the offices in the wedge of the Pentagon hit by the jet, said soldiers stopped their searches only when ordered to do so.

Yesterday, Pentagon staff talked in hushed tones of the missing.

"Everybody has people they know of who may be on the missing list, but we're just trying to get down to business today," said Army Col. Matt Martin.

During the day, a plume of sandy-colored smoke rising from the rubble slowly dissipated as firefighters gained control of the blaze. But the air was heavy with the odor of burning plastic.

`People with sunburns'

"You want to find out who was doing the good stuff, look for the people with sunburns," said Army Lt. Col. Matthew Moten, describing those who tried to help victims near the intense heat of the flames as long as they could.

But Pentagon workers spoke grimly of the frustration of not being able to do more to help.

"For the first time in my life, I felt I'd rather be a fireman than a soldier," said Chris Perkins, an Army officer sitting at lunch in the cafeteria, who called Tuesday the most frustrating day of his life. "You wanted to be a part of the solution, but you didn't want to get in the way of the recovery."

Though the Pentagon was operating yesterday under Threat Con Delta, the highest security classification, many workers attempted to return to a semblance of normality. The halls filled with civilian employees, the cleaning staff swept floors, the cafeteria served spaghetti.

But it was no ordinary day. A helicopter constantly circled above, and FBI agents holding paper bags scoured the grounds for criminal evidence.

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