Trained and disciplined, Pentagon ”heroes” knew exactly what to do
ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) – They believed they were in the most secure building in the strongest country in the world. Then a hijacked plane smashed into the Pentagon, their fortress. Yet they knew just what to do.
Knocked onto his back, Army Lt. Col. Victor Correa picked himself up from the floor and helped dazed colleagues out of the room. He headed for a wall of smoke down a hall littered with ceiling tiles, illuminated only by distant flames.
His big, booming voice was a natural to lead people to safety.
”I was screaming, ‘Listen to me. Listen to me. Follow my voice,”’ Correa recalled. ”Folks started coming out.”
Correa peered into the smoke, a water-soaked T-shirt pressed to his face. No one had to tell him what to do. ”All of us had a different function, and I knew what mine was,” he said.
All across the Pentagon, years of military training and discipline kicked in.
After an unfounded warning that a second aircraft was on its way, Correa forced open fire doors that had slammed shut. He went back in and started shouting again.
His shouting drew Carl Mahnken back to consciousness. Mahnken, a civilian in the army public affairs office, got up from the rubble-strewn floor and followed the voices through the smoke. Outside, he saw medics assisting the wounded. He ran over to help.
”You knew what to do, you ripped pants open, you took shoes off, you learned to help people with their shock, to get the blood flowing,” said Mahnken, an Army reservist trained in first aid.
It was not until hours later, in the evening, that a firefighter told Mahnken about the golf-ball-size bump protruding from his crown. That was when he remembered his computer terminal flying toward his head, hours earlier.
”He gave me an ice pack,” he said. ”I hadn’t noticed.”
Army Sgt. Maj. Tony Rose heard cries for help from behind a mountain of debris inside one room and set up a tunnel-digging team, working on rotation. One particularly hefty Navy Seal propped up the sagging ceiling.
”I forget his name,” Rose said. ”We just called him ‘Big John.”’
They had helped seven people out through the impromptu tunnel when a wall buckled. They got out before it collapsed.
There was a call for volunteers in another area.
”There were some walking wounded, but everyone who could turned back,” Rose said. ”We had no maps, no flashlights, just wet T-shirts.”
Some refused even to talk about themselves, insisting on recounting the heroism they witnessed.
Lt. Col. Sean Kelly singled out Army colleague Capt. Darrell Oliver.
After Kelly and Oliver lifted a desk off a secretary, Oliver hoisted her onto his back and carried her out. Then he returned for a hearing impaired janitor who was sobbing in fear.
”He calmed him down, he carried him out over the partitions, over the furniture,” Kelly said.
Kelly also noted National Guard Lt. Col. Larry Dudney, hacking from smoke inhalation as he lifted furniture off of his colleagues.
Each man said military training was key to the disciplined response – although each hastened to note that the civilians were also cool and resourceful.
”The thing with the military,” Kelly said, ”is that you ask for one volunteer, you get 50 – you’re trained for crisis.”
Rose marveled as he recalled shouting orders at generals among the volunteers bagging body parts around the wreckage.
”I sort of became the old sergeant major out there,” he said. ”People, regardless of rank, fell in and did what was needed.”
Constantly on the rescuers’ minds is the thought about what was left undone: 188 people believed dead from the plane and the Defense Department headquarters.
”I knew I had to leave when (the smoke) got worse. I think I did the right thing,” Correa said. ”There are questions I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life.”
Some answers have already come: ”I’ve been approached by several folks who said, ‘That was the voice I heard.”’