Battling flames, fears

Pentagon: Moments after a hijacked airliner slammed into the military headquarters, a firefighter from Joppa was on the scene.

Terrorism Strikes America

The Nation

September 17, 2001|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Christopher G. Evans thought he was going to die. In the Pentagon. On a Tuesday. Without a chance for final goodbyes.

"We heard the sound" as the Pentagon began to collapse, said Evans, 35, a Department of Defense firefighter stationed at nearby Fort Myer. "It sounded like when they dump a whole bunch of cinder blocks, like when they're building a house -- but magnify that by almost a million."

Most Americans learned of last week's horror through television or radio accounts. Evans -- one of the first firefighters inside the Pentagon after American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into it at 9:40 a.m. -- lived it.

There are images he may never shake -- bodies burned beyond recognition, part of a foot still in a sock.

In the six days since terrorists hijacked four planes -- crashing two others into the World Trade Center in New York and a third into an empty field in Pennsylvania -- Evans hasn't been able to forget the terror he felt inside the inferno.

"I was praying," he said. "It was real simple years ago -- you go in, put the fire out and get out. Now I have to worry about whether somebody's going to try to kill me while I'm fighting fire."

Evans' day began in a classroom at Fort Myer, on a hill overlooking the Pentagon. He and nearly two dozen others were in a certification class for aircraft fire and rescue.

"It's been awhile since I'd had any kind of official training," Evans said. "I was really anxious to get my certification. It's really important for us to know. We protect all the military aircraft."

Class began at 8. During a break just before 9 a.m., Evans called fiancee Kimberly Cole on his cell phone. "We were just talking," Cole said. "At that point, we did not know the towers had been hit."

Off the phone and back in class, Evans was surprised when a fire inspector -- who had watched television during the break -- announced that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center.

"We were like, `Wow.' Everybody was shocked, but nobody was panicking," Evans said. "We didn't know it was a terrorist attack. We couldn't wait till lunchtime so we could go watch it on TV."

Lunchtime never arrived. Suddenly the building shook.

"It was like a dull explosion," he said, "almost like when they're testing weapons at Aberdeen Proving Ground," the Army installation near his Joppa home.

"Within seconds ... one of the guys stationed at our heliport came on [the radio] and said a 757 had crashed into the Pentagon," Evans recalled. "He was screaming. He said it had crashed and exploded on the heliport side."

Evans and two others dashed a hundred yards to a fire engine and sped toward the Pentagon.

"We immediately went inside to try to rescue some people," Evans said. "We encountered heavy fire, intense heat, jet fuel still burning, multiple-colored flames. It was very difficult to see. It was extremely hot. Debris, part of the building, concrete, was falling down around us. We were told before we went in not to try to move people who were clearly dead."

The intense heat triggered a sensor on his air pack, signaling that the gear was too hot to protect him -- the first time that had happened in his 10-year career. Thermal-imaging cameras -- used to locate people by their body heat -- didn't work.

"You couldn't distinguish bodies from other things. It was probably better than 1,000 degrees."

Evans then heard a screeching sound he'll never forget -- part of the Pentagon was about to collapse.

"It was starting to shake almost," Evans recalled yesterday at his home. "We were yelling for our guys to get out. I was probably 20 feet into the building at that point. I was using every muscle in my body to get away. I've never run that fast in my life."

His thoughts were racing, too.

"My kids were on my mind," he said. "When you brush death that close, a lot goes through your mind. ... Your heart's pumping. By now, you've put two and two together -- at least I had -- that this is an attack."

Running in gear that weighs 75 pounds, Evans took shelter on Washington Boulevard until he and other firefighters were told they could re-enter the building -- he doesn't remember how long. Time itself seemed to stand still that day.

Inside the burning Pentagon, evacuation alarms sounded because of a rumor that another hijacked plane was heading for the Pentagon, Evans said.

"As I'm looking at the door, I could see the light in the distance," he said. "We yelled for the rest of the guys to get out of the building. We followed the fire hose lines out."

About 1:30 p.m., nearly four hours after the airliner crashed into the Pentagon, Evans got word to his mother and Cole that he was OK. But it was Thursday morning before he made it home to Joppa, opting to sleep at the station and continue working Wednesday.

He went to Heritage Montessori School in Perry Hall about 9 a.m. Thursday, knowing that Cole would be dropping off her daughter, Kelsea, 7, and would have his younger son Trevor, 4, along.

"I went to the school so I could give them a hug and a kiss," Evans said. "I was pretty upset and angry. I cried."

His reunion with his older son, Colin, 6, had to wait until just before 4 p.m. when the boy got off his school bus.

"He came running down the street and screamed, `Daddy!'" Evans said. "He was happy. It was pretty emotional."

Though shaken, Evans is thankful to be alive.

"I'm extremely happy to be with my family," he said. "I'm happy that the sun comes up every day."

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