'I didn’t begin my career thinking about terrorism': Running command at the Pentagon

Years of preplanning aided the incident command of an MCI, building fire, technical rescue, hazmat, and terrorism crime scene all in one


I didn’t begin my career in the fire and EMS service thinking about terrorism. Like so many others, I was attracted to the job by the teamwork and sense of common purpose, the camaraderie practiced when crawling down smoky hallways or helping sick and injured people.

Fortunately, I was influenced by great leaders and mentors who saw the future direction of the service differently. While excelling at fire, EMS, hazmat and technical rescue, it was imperative that we become more aware of emerging threats as often learned through crises experienced around the world. We learned to ask questions like, “What if that were to happen here?” Will we be ready? Are we prepared?”

Here in Arlington, Virginia, the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 as well as the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City and the sarin attack in the Tokyo Subway, both in 1995, got our attention. Recognizing how ill prepared we were for the unique threat that terrorism posed, then-Arlington Fire Chief Ed Plaugher rallied the National Capital Region, through the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG), to develop a specialized team capable of responding to incidents involving weapons of mass destruction. The concept built on decades of regional coordination with most jurisdictions in the metropolitan area providing EMS, hazmat and law enforcement personnel to the cadre known then as the Metropolitan Medical Strike Team. The MMST was activated often by the federal government to be forward deployed on numerous National Special Security Events, including when the president visited the Capitol for the State of the Union address. The MMST reinforced the value of an inter-disciplinary, regional approach to preparing for large, complex events.

The Pentagon is hit: ‘All manNer of havoc’

On the morning of September 11, 2001, many of us in Arlington were watching with the rest of the country the events unfolding in New York. The stunning images of a burning high-rise building, one side disfigured by the silhouette of the airplane, high above the city streets, spelled for us an intentional act even before the second airliner confirmed what was happening.

We immediately began to think that if this was to be more extensive, the D.C area, as the nation’s capital, was surely a possible next target.

As Assistant Chief for Operations, I told our comms center that I wanted all units not assigned to incidents to return to their firehouses. As Arlington Engine 101 was traveling up Interstate 395, the captain came over the radio reporting a plane going down in the vicinity of the 14th Street Bridge, which connects Arlington to the District of Columbia; the Pentagon is just to the southwest of the bridge. Soon, the 911 center would be overloaded with calls about a plane down, an explosion, a fire and all manner of havoc, thus beginning the largest response in our region’s history.

A helicopter flies over the Pentagon in Washington as smoke billows over the building immediate after the attack.
A helicopter flies over the Pentagon in Washington as smoke billows over the building immediate after the attack. (AP Photo/Heesoon Yim)

Initial actions: ‘We had the makings of a unified IMT’

At the Pentagon, one of the world’s largest office buildings and the workplace of approximately 25,000 people, the first unit on the scene was already there when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the building at 9:37 a.m. The crash fire rescue unit from Ft. Myer Fire Department, the Army post adjacent to the Pentagon, was on helicopter stand-by next to the landing pad on the west side of the building. The three firefighters assigned to that unit ran for their lives as the airplane approached. They quickly recovered after the explosion and worked feverishly to operate their heavily damaged vehicle to begin fighting the fire, an effort that proved futile.

The first unit from Arlington County Fire Department, Truck 105, arrived at 9:41, four minutes after the impact. Soon, every unit from the department and dozens from our regional partners would arrive to work in concert to assess the situation, provide medical care for the casualties, form a search and rescue effort for those still trapped in the building, and fight the fire. Police quickly began setting up a security perimeter and directing people out of the area.

Photos released by the FBI in 2017 show damage to the Pentagon caused during the 9/11 attacks.
Photos released by the FBI in 2017 show damage to the Pentagon caused during the 9/11 attacks. (Photos/FBI via AP)

All of this became further complicated by the collapse of the building in the area of the crash and soon after, the report of a second aircraft believed by the FBI to be headed toward the D.C. area, necessitating a hasty but temporary evacuation of the scene. The incident fast became complicated with significant demands on resources. As Chief Plaugher would later observe, the scene was a mass-casualty incident, building fire, technical rescue, hazmat, and terrorism crime scene all in one.

I arrived at 9:48 a.m. and was joined one minute later by Special Agent Chris Combs from the Washington Field Office of the FBI. Combs had come directly from training with the heavy rescue squads from most of the fire departments in the metropolitan region, part of our regional preparations for the IMF/World Bank meetings that were scheduled for October of that year.

Almost immediately we were joined by John Jester, then the chief of the Defense Protective Service, which served as the security force at the Pentagon. We knew Chief Jester from our work together on the MMST, which Chief Jester had enthusiastically supported. Jester told us what he knew from inside the building and pledged his total support to our response efforts.

From the first minutes of the tragedy, we had the makings of a unified incident management team, which proved invaluable for decision-making, information-sharing and coordinating response efforts.

Clarifying roles: ‘Keeping interferences from intruding on command’

Not long into the incident, it became apparent that the military members of the Pentagon workforce were intent on continuing their efforts to reenter the building to search for colleagues. Despite their heroic resolve, this complicated the response, and I felt the need to order a cordon to deny entry to anyone that wasn’t part of the organized response. These were tense moments, but military leaders understood what was at stake and ordered a standdown.

Sept. 11 progressed with a priority of managing the casualties, searching for additional victims, and fighting the building fire. The collapse had complicated access for search and rescue as well as the effectiveness of the crash fire rescue vehicles from National Airport that had been contributing to the suppression effort on the west side of the building. As such, a fire suppression effort was established from the center court in the middle of the Pentagon. The center court is an outdoor area that is five acres in size. It provided the best vantage point for firefighting, but it also required a revision of methods that better resembled the profession a generation ago. Firefighters stretched hoselines 700 and 800 feet into the building and, in many cases, to preserve breathing air, did not don SCBA masks until they were deep into the building. This effort was so intense that most were unable to evacuate when the order was given regarding the second airplane.

By mid-afternoon, it was clear that I didn’t have a full accounting of all the resources that were on scene. We later learned that there had been a lot of “self-dispatching,” and too many units had bypassed staging. We also had a lot of resources that either didn’t work together regularly or in some cases were not traditional partners of first response.

I decided to assemble the leadership from as many of these groups as we could and asked Chief Jester if he could get me a place to gather. He soon came back to say that he had secured the Press Room for the Secretary of Defense.

Schwartz, shown here in a press briefing following the attack, led the unified command effort for the Pentagon incident.
Schwartz, shown here in a press briefing following the attack, led the unified command effort for the Pentagon incident. (Photo/Jim Schwartz)

At 6 p.m. we gathered about 100 people, and I explained that while we had done a good job for the last eight hours, we were going to be there another eight days. I then went on to describe in basic terms what the incident command system was and how it would work. Combs, speaking for the FBI, announced that the Bureau worked for the Arlington County fire chief and would coordinate all their actions through unified command. This went a long way to clarifying the collaborative approach to our decision-making and signaled to everyone that there was one chain of command.

It was at that meeting that Major General James Jackson, then-Commanding General for the Military District of Washington, introduced himself and said that he had been assigned by the Secretary of Defense to represent the Department of Defense in support of the response. He said that anything he had that could assist in the response would be made available, and he assigned two colonels to represent him in unified command.

Chief Plaugher and General Jackson teamed up and spent the lion’s share of their time keeping interferences from intruding on command decision-making. This was something Plaugher had forecast when he arrived at the scene. I had offered the chief the command vest and he declined. He recognized that the size and complexity of the incident, as well as its national repercussions, made circumstances ripe for obstruction and interference. He took on himself the responsibility of insulating us from those potential difficulties. I always thought the role he played was an excellent example of adapting in a crisis. There is no position in ICS like the one he played, but it was indispensable. It also highlights the fact that unlike the routine incidents to which we normally apply ICS, large, complex incidents can have political implications that require an interface between operational decision-making and the needs of political actors.

Ongoing effort: ‘Everyone had worked extraordinarily hard’

By the end of the day on Sept. 11, the fire was thought to be largely under control, and I made the decision to take a more defensive posture. Everyone from around the region had worked extraordinarily hard and, in addition to the physical effort expended, the fact that our nation had been attacked was weighing heavily on most. So too was the knowledge of what had occurred to our brothers and sisters in New York where the loss of responders from the collapse of the World Trade Center was not fully known but was expected to be catastrophic.

Unfortunately, as the evening hours progressed, it became apparent that fire had traveled to the roof structures that cover the inner and outer rings and the corridors of the Pentagon. These pitched rooftops, which sat on the concrete deck that covered all of the building, were covered in slate and, unbeknownst to me, were insulated underneath with horsehair. By the middle of the night, we had a fire running under much of this structure, and firefighters had to go back to work breaking up the slate and maneuvering hoselines underneath to extinguish the fire.

By midday on Sept. 12, we had all the fire under control. And thus began the technical rescue effort that would go on for another nine days.

Fire traveled to the roof structures that cover the inner and outer rings and the corridors of the Pentagon. By the middle of the night, fire was running under much of the structure, prompting firefighters to go back to work on fire suppression efforts.
Fire traveled to the roof structures that cover the inner and outer rings and the corridors of the Pentagon. By the middle of the night, fire was running under much of the structure, prompting firefighters to go back to work on fire suppression efforts. (Photo/FBI via AP)

Preplanning in perspective: ‘It paid enormous dividends on Sept. 11’

In evaluating the response to the Pentagon, the 9/11 Commission said “While no emergency response is flawless the response to the terrorist attack at the Pentagon was mainly a success for three reasons: first the strong professional relationships and trust established among emergency responders; second, the adoption of the Incident Command System; and third, the pursuit of a regional approach to emergency response” (p. 314).

One could read that and assume that something clicked in the moment of crisis to convince dozens of organizations and thousands of responders to cooperate with each other. The fact is that when the attack occurred, decades of investment in relationship-building was fulfilled. The MWCOG, a forum for regional coordination and the host of both fire and police chief committees, had been in existence for more than 40 years on 9/11, and the fire departments in northern Virginia had been practicing automatic aid, essentially eliminating jurisdictional boundaries, for more than 25 years.

In addition, Combs and members of the National Capital Response Squad from the FBI Washington Field Office had attended regional fire chief meetings beginning in 1998. They also participated in regional exercises, including a full field exercise hosted by Fairfax County on Sept. 8. The scenario for that exercise was a release of a chemical warfare agent, but all the players that would respond together three days later were practicing together in furthering our relationships and mutual understanding. Combs’ recognition that the FBI had no partnership with the fire rescue service and his understanding of the primary role we would play “when a building blew up” motivated him to begin this forward-thinking, extraordinary work – and it paid enormous dividends on Sept. 11.

While the value of strong, trustful relationships is affirmed by the response to the Pentagon attack, it’s fair to say that alone is not sufficient. 9/11 and the numerous novel crises since have demonstrated that public safety and health organizations cannot afford to focus solely on the domain as defined by their professional discipline or jurisdictional boundary. The routine mission that such organizations face every day (that they were originally created to address) too often restrict thinking about what to prepare for. Public safety organizations must prepare for the unthinkable. Moreover, they must acknowledge that the capabilities within their organization will be insufficient to the multi-dimensional challenges of a complex novel event like 9/11. Public safety leaders must ensure that the strategic priorities of their department include the establishment of relationships with those who dress differently from them, whose mission statement reads differently from their own, but on whom their ultimate success and the safety of those they serve depends.

Opening our eyes: ‘An attack that exposed the fiction’

It’s hard to believe how fast we got here. Twenty years ago, under an unbelievably beautiful sky, the nation was stunned by an attack that exposed the fiction that we were safe between two oceans and could always deploy “over there” to securely maintain our way of life.

The other fiction that was exposed was that national security was the responsibility of the federal government. 9/11 proved that it is a combined effort of all levels of government, the business and nonprofit sectors, and the very people who make up this great nation – the people whom we have chosen to serve.

Never forget: ‘Their loss is felt every day’

I don’t know how many times I’ve walked through the 9/11 Memorial at the Pentagon. The memorial is beautifully laid out in a timeline that begins at 9:37 a.m., when the plane crashed into the building. There is a bench to honor each of the 184 lives lost that day, 59 on the plane, and 125 in the building. At the end of each bench is the name of the person it honors and in the small pool of water under each bench are the names of any family members who were also lost.

A U.S. flag is draped on the side of the Pentagon where the attack took place, seen from the Pentagon Memorial.
A U.S. flag is draped on the side of the Pentagon where the attack took place, seen from the Pentagon Memorial. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

In the timeline, the benches are arrayed according to the age of the victim. The first bench in the timeline is that of Dana Falkenberg who was 3 years old; a few feet away is the bench for her sister Zoe, who was 8. They were traveling with their parents who also have benches and each of the four have the names of the other three family members in the pool below. A little further in the timeline are benches for three sixth-graders from D.C. Public Schools. Bernard Brown, Asia Cotton, and Rodney Dickens were going on a four-day trip to California for a National Geographic event. They perished without their parents and, like Dana and Zoe, far too early.

Everyone lost that day had a story and have no doubt left lasting memories to those they left behind. The nation honors their lives on this and every anniversary. But their loss is felt every day by those who loved them.

I go to the memorial to not forget.

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