At Pentagon, despair sets in on 3rd day

Attention shifts to care of rescue workers as hope for survivors dims

Terrorism Strikes America

Washington

September 14, 2001|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

Garth Clarke's hand shook as he slid the key into the door of his stepfather's car yesterday afternoon in the south parking lot of the Pentagon. After three days of waiting for him to come home from work, Mike Selves' family had finally resigned hope.

Clarke sank into the driver's seat and gripped the wheel, then got back out. His sister, Cara, had traveled from Deltona, Fla., to help him through this moment. And together, they walked up a grassy rise on the edge of the parking lot to see the charred chasm where their stepfather's office used to be.

Selves, a career federal employee and the director of information systems for the Secretary of the Army, was at the center of Tuesday's maelstrom.

"When we first saw the plane hit on TV, I told my mom not to worry," Cara Clarke, 39, said evenly, tears running down her face. "I told her his office wasn't in that part of the building. I told her he wasn't in the new wing. And that's when she said: `No, they just moved [him] to a spot overlooking the helicopter pad.'"

Directly in the path of hijacked American Airlines Flight 77.

"He was a good man," whispered Garth Clarke, 32, a firefighter in nearby Prince William County, Va. "He was coming up on retirement. He had big plans. He was going to move to Hilton Head with Mom. He liked to golf."

"He was only 53," his sister said.

"He's still in there," Garth said, "somewhere."

As in New York City, the reckoning has begun in northern Virginia. Stone-faced young soldiers came and went in shifts all day, taking their turns at "mortuary duty" - donning white moon suits and heavy rubber boots for their descent into the blackened crevasse on the Pentagon's west side. They deposited what they found into a procession of refrigerator trucks, then moved off with wet towels over their heads to recover in a waiting tent village that grew by the hour.

"They have asbestos issues, jet fuel issues, biohazard issues, structural issues," said Gerry Boudrean, 43, a hazardous materials expert from Sterling, Va. "There's going to come a time very soon when we'll have to come to grips with the fact that they're all gone. Nobody could possibly survive in there this long under those conditions."

Boudrean, too, knows someone "inside." His neighbor hasn't returned since she left for work at the Pentagon on Tuesday morning.

"Her front porch light is still on, and we keep checking her driveway. But Karen is still unaccounted for. And every day that goes by, my neighborhood gets further up in arms."

As in New York, where doctors and paramedics have been waiting for a wave of survivors who still haven't come, military medics at the Pentagon have been treating mostly heat-stricken rescue workers for the past two days.

"On the first day, I handled about five people who managed to get out, and they all were burned," said Master Sgt. Noel Sepulveda, an Air Force medic. "Some had impact injuries, but every one of them were burned. That's not a good sign for anybody who's still in there, and I haven't seen anybody come out since then."

As he spoke, the latest convoy of relief supplies arrived - pallets full of Gatorade in four flavors, bottled water, cereal, toothpaste, shaving cream, blankets and still more tents. All to feed and shelter whom?

"The rescue guys are grateful to be able to eat," said Larry Osborne, 43, who drove all night from Lenoir, N.C., with his church group to set up a cavernous dining tent and all-weather kitchen capable of serving 1,200 people a day. "But nobody wants to talk much about what they're seeing out there."

Throughout the day, heavily armed Department of Defense officers patrolled the Pentagon grounds in black SWAT uniforms, and scores of Arlington police encircled the entire complex, demanding identification at every turn.

Surrounding highways remained barricaded for the third day.

Balloons bearing conciliatory messages bobbed from guard posts and light poles. At their evening meal, exhausted work crews were greeted by handwritten notes of thanks on their dinner napkins from area schoolchildren. And hanging next to the gaping hole in the Pentagon's west wall, a large American flag billowed in the breeze.

Said Cara Clarke: "We're from a military family, and military families get moved around a lot. We lived in Beirut when we were kids, so we've seen some things. We've seen blown-up buildings. We have friends who have gone through situations like this.

"I just never thought I'd see it here."

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