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The Pentagon on Sept. 11: One Survivor's Account

Now a military expert for Human Rights Watch, Marc Garlasco was a Pentagon analyst for seven years — and he was there when terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. He tells Fresh Air about his experiences that morning.

06:03

Other segments from the episode on May 22, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 22, 2008: Interview with Marc Galasco; Interview with Patrick Creed and Rich Newman.

Transcript

DATE May 22, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Marc Galasco, formerly of the Pentagon and now with
Human Rights Watch, discusses what happened on 9/11 when the
Pentagon was attacked
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

When the Pentagon was attacked on 9/11, the building burned for three days,
and the nation's military headquarters almost shut down. One hundred
eighty-four people were killed. Surprisingly little has been written about
what went on at the Pentagon that day, but it's the focus of a new book called
"Firefight: Inside the Battle To Save the Pentagon on 9/11." In a moment
we'll meet the authors, journalist Rick Newman and volunteer firefighter
Patrick Creed. Creed is also an Army Reserve officer, and in the middle of
writing the book was sent to Iraq, where he was injured.

First we're going to hear from someone who was in his office at the Pentagon
on 9/11 during the attack. Marc Garlasco is a former chief of high-value
targeting. After the first phase of the war in Iraq, he left the Pentagon to
do human rights work. We heard from him on FRESH AIR last month, but we saved
this part of the interview for today.

Did you think that the Pentagon was going to be targeted?

Mr. MARC GARLASCO: Yeah, it's funny you should ask that. I was actually in
a meeting in the NMJIC, the National Military Joint Intelligence Center, which
is this vault inside the Pentagon where the intel guys were. And we were
watching the World Trade Center on the TV and someone said, `Oh, you know,
it's been hit.' So there we're watching it. And when the second plane hit, we
all looked at each other. And literally, I don't know if I said it or if
someone I was with said it, said, `I bet you we got stingers on the roof of
this building now.' And we really meant it. I think we really meant it, that
there was, you know, there were going to be guys with anti-aircraft missiles
all over Washington, DC--on the White House, on the Pentagon.

But I was really still surprised when the boys in black pajamas ran into the
office with their submachine guns and screamed, `Evacuate! We've just been
hit!' And I was really surprised, even though we had, you know, spoken about
that. And, you know, we're in a vault and you're basically underground, and
you have to understand the earth is an incredible insulator. And the
Pentagon's a big building, you know, it's a mile from end to end, and I was
working on the north side, and the building was hit on the south side. So I
didn't feel a damn thing.

But as soon as I stepped out of that vault, there were a few things that
really struck me. One was the smell. And it was just this smell of burning
horse hair, this fire, because the insulation in the Pentagon was horse hair,
you know, built back in the '40s. It's the second world war, you need to use
kind of cheap replacement materials. And so they used what was cheap and
easy. They used horse hair. And so there's this bizarre burning smell.

And the other thing is there's just--there's candy all over the place, and
cans of soda, and it's because all of the candy machines and soda machines had
just burst open when the plane hit and the pressure wave when through some of
the corridors. And there's glass and debris and this cacophony, and it was
just really, really shocking to me that that place, which I really and truly
believed was probably the safest spot on the place of the earth was all of a
sudden, you know, a target, and was on fire.

GROSS: What was your instinct? To run out or to stay there, trying to look
for people who might be hurt, to rescue secret documents, information that you
needed? Like, what was your instinct?

Mr. GARLASCO: My first instinct was to call my wife. I immediately picked
up the phone, and I called Carolyn, who worked for World Wildlife Fund back in
DC, and I just picked it up. I said, `We just got hit. I'm OK.' And I got
that out, and that was it. And the phones were not working anymore.

And once I got out of my area, I was looking to people and just standing there
looking around. You know, everyone was a little bit in shock. And I saw a
colleague of mine, kind of a mentor, Gary Greco, who is still there working at
a fairly senior position in counterterrorism. And I ran up to Gary, who was
very senior, and I said, `What do we need to do?' And he looked at me and he
said, `Garlasco,'--he always calls you by your last--`Garlasco, do you have
any medical training? You know any--have any medical training at all?' I
said, `No, nothing.' And he said, `Then get the hell out of there. Just go.
Go home.'

And you have to remember, at the time, there was another plane in the air,
there were even reports of bombs going off at the State Department and
throughout DC. There was, you know, this chaos. Nobody knew what was
happening. And so I thought, OK, you know, let's get the hell out of the
building.

And I ran out. And as I ran out of the north parking entrance, I, you know,
was with this huge throng of military and civilian people just funnelling out
of the building. Because you have to remember, there were thousands of people
working in the Pentagon. It's the biggest office building in the world. And
I turn around and there is this huge black cloud just shooting up into the
sky. And just, I was numb. It was incredibly numbing. And I was really
shocked.

Got into the car, started driving down the George Washington Parkway with the
local NPR station on, and I heard the first building go down, the first World
Trade Center, and I did not believe it. I stopped at a light in old town,
Alexandria, and opened my window and screamed out to the other car across from
me, I said, `Did you hear the World Trade Center just collapsed?' And we were
having this conversation, couldn't believe it. And got home and, I mean, you
know, I live very close to the Pentagon, so I actually got home just in time
to see the second tower collapse. And I just sat in my living room, just numb
as could be. And I was shaking. I was shaking like a leaf.

GROSS: Marc Garlasco was working at the Pentagon on 9/11. He now works with
Human Rights Watch.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Patrick Creed and Rich Newman, authors of "Firefight,"
discuss their book "Firefight" and what happened when the Pentagon
was attacked on 9/11
TERRY GROSS, host:

The new book "Firefight: Inside the Battle to Save the Pentagon on 9/11"
tells what happened at the Pentagon that day from the point of view of people
who worked there, firefighters and FBI agents. My guests are the authors.
Patrick Creed is a volunteer firefighter and amateur historian. He's also an
Army Reserve officer who was called to serve in Iraq and was injured there.
More on that later. Rick Newman is a staff writer for U.S. News and World
Report. Their book will be published next Tuesday.

Patrick Creed, Rick Newman, welcome to FRESH AIR. Which part of the Pentagon
was hit?

Mr. PATRICK CREED: The Pentagon, first of all, important to know, is in
Arlington, Virginia. It's not in Washington, DC. It's on the west bank of
the Potomac River. It's on a strip of land between the Potomac River and
Arlington National Cemetery. The plane approached from the west and hit the
western side of the building, kind of the southwest. That's kind of the side
where there's really no buildings. It's between the cemetery and the
Pentagon, and that's where it hit.

Mr. RICK NEWMAN: The Pentagon is such an odd building. There's more square
footage inside the Pentagon than in the Empire State Building, which is, what,
about 100 stories tall. It only sits five stories aboveground, but it
occupies an amount of space that's equal to about two or three city blocks in
New York or Chicago. And because of that layout, obviously about 30 to 40
percent of the building where the plane hit was essentiality obliterated, if
not by the explosion then by the fire that burned for about a day and a half
afterwards.

But on the other side of the Pentagon, people were working in the Pentagon.
They didn't even know that a plane had hit the building. They didn't feel
anything. And as you kind of walk around the Pentagon to different areas,
people who were closer to it felt, you know, some people felt a shudder, as if
a freight elevator had sort of come to a hard landing, for instance, in an
elevator shaft. But even then, people didn't know what had happened, and when
you think about--I mean, we've all seen that video of the second plane hitting
the World Trade Center, where you can see the part of the plane actually
going--or at least the force of the explosion going out the other side of the
building in the skyscraper, it was a totally different scenario at the
Pentagon.

GROSS: What are some of the descriptions that left the biggest impressions on
you of what it was like in the building just after the attack?

Mr. CREED: When I started doing research for the book, I was talking to
firefighters at different fire stations in and around Arlington, Virginia, and
they continually described it as just absolutely you could not take a step.
There was so much debris, the ceilings, the telephone lines, electrical lines,
air conditioning ducts, all of this was hanging down along with just huge
piles of debris that they couldn't move a step in the area where the plane had
directly impacted. In other areas, the floors were buckled, the walls were
buckled, elevators wouldn't open, ceilings had collapsed. And when I first
saw the pictures that some of those firefighters had taken, it was striking.
You just couldn't imagine. It didn't look that bad from the outside.

Mr. NEWMAN: There's a real dichotomy between what it looked like from the
outside and what was going on on the inside. So from the outside you saw this
hole in the building, but it looked like a gash. On the inside, however, one
firefighter after another, and also people who were trying to rescue
colleagues and so forth, told us that this fire was so hot, they couldn't even
get near it. And Pat's a firefighter, he can correct me on the technicalities
here. But firefighting gear can withstand about 500 degrees, I think...

Mr. CREED: A little more than that. But...

Mr. NEWMAN: ...for short periods of time. And these guys couldn't get at
the fire to fight it because it was 1500 or 2,000 degrees in some places. And
essentially they had--and this was not their strategy, but they essentially
had to let this fire burn itself out.

GROSS: What about inside? You know, there were so many secret documents
inside the Pentagon. Was there a lot of pandemonium as people tried to save
things before saving their lives?

Mr. CREED: For the most part, the people in the worst affected areas, it was
instantly obvious that something really terrible had happened. The smoke and
the fire was spreading very quickly, and they just needed to get out. And
firefighters told us walking through the building, the water from shattered
pipes and from the firefighting efforts, ankle to knee deep in places, secret
documents floating around in the water. There wasn't a sense of that.
Afterwards, there was a real rush and a real effort to try to get control of
these very quickly. The Pentagon security and other elements were trying to
get all these safes and secure filing cabinets and recover them, get them out
quickly. You know, they couldn't tell which was which. The dials for dialing
the combination on these safes had all melted away. Any identifying markings
were gone. Many of the users and people who knew which were which were dead.
And they needed to get this stuff out and they brought it to the north parking
lot area and had to figure out how to get it open and what was around and what
wasn't. It was kind of chaotic for the people who were obsessed with keeping
that stuff secret.

Mr. NEWMAN: It's really interesting, the different mentality that people had
at the Pentagon. Their first reaction was, `OK, I have to escape the fire,
but first I have to lock up these documents because, you know, national
security is at stake.' And then when people got outside, one of the surprising
things we discovered was that a lot people who ran out of the building,
because that's what they were told to do, then tried to get back into the
building. And some of them were trying to go back in because they realized
that they probably had colleagues who were trapped in there. But some of them
were trying to get back in to secure documents. And there were wrestling
matches between firefighters, once they finally arrived, who said, `You cannot
go back into this building. You're just going to make our job harder, and
we're going to end up having to rescue you,' and people who said, `I have to
get in this building. I left my safe open.' Or `I left a document sitting
out. I have to go get them.'

Mr. CREED: When the military personnel started to get the impression, or the
feeling that the firefighters weren't rescuing people fast enough because they
weren't seeing survivors come out, they formed into groups and tried to enter.
And we saw with some of the Navy personnel, especially two Navy flight
surgeons who we talk about, first effort was to go and rescue people, crawling
through burning areas with no protective gear at all, and made some
significant effort, rescued quite a few people, who otherwise wouldn't have
made it. And it was a mentality of going back in, save the ship. And we saw
that throughout. It wasn't just Navy. It was Army and Air Force where these
people formed together in small groups and started to try to rescue people.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are the two authors of the new
book "Firefight: Inside the Battle to Save the Pentagon on 9/11." Rick Newman
is a reporter for U.S. News and World Report. Patrick Creed is an amateur
historian, volunteer firefighter and is a US Army Reserve officer who recently
returned from serving in Iraq.

Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense then, refused to leave the Pentagon.
Why did he refuse?

Mr. CREED: It was his building. He very quickly realized the significance
of it. Secretary Rumsfeld, for whatever you think of him, rushed outside and
helped carry wounded on stretchers. And then he caught himself and realized
that wasn't his job as secretary of defense when the country's under attack.
He went back into his command area and then refused to leave. He did not
leave. He stayed when the place was filling up with smoke, told others they
could leave if they wanted to and he wasn't going anywhere. And, you know, he
was the one who announced that the Pentagon would open the next day, and he
did not check with fire chiefs before doing that. The fire chiefs were
stunned to learn that the building was going to open for business the next
day, and they were still fighting the biggest fire of their entire careers.
It was raging throughout the building. And...

GROSS: Well, in fact you say some of the firemen didn't even know that Donald
Rumsfeld and someone from the Joint Chiefs and other top people had remained
in the Pentagon, trying to continue to work.

Mr. NEWMAN: Yeah, the fire chiefs were pretty surprised to find out that
there were still people operating in what's called the National Military
Command Center, the NMCC, and in an area that's adjacent to it called the
Executive Support Center, which is where the defense secretary, that's sort of
like his suite of offices for urgent situations, let's say. And somebody from
the joint staff went running up to the firefighters' command post at one point
in the afternoon on 9/11 and said, `We've got a problem. We've got smoke--you
know, smoke is coming into the NMCC. What should we do?' And the fire chief
said, `Why do you still have people in the NMCC? What are they doing there?'
And they made an arrangement to get some breathing bottles, oxygen bottles and
air masks in there in case they were needed. And at the same time, the
building managers were trying to figure out how to work the vents on the roof
of the Pentagon to make the smoke go elsewhere.

GROSS: Describe what site R is. What the people at the National Military
Command Center wanted to do was to start up site R, where they could locate
instead.

Mr. NEWMAN: Well, I've never been to site R, so I can't give you a
first-person description. It's a classified, secret site. It's in the
Maryland hills, someplace probably very close to Camp David. Site R is a
backup National Military Command Center, so it's designed as a duplicate for
the NMCC at the Pentagon, and, at least as of 9/11, it was manned by a
skeleton staff all the time, but it was a very small crew that basically kept
the computers running and stuff like that.

When Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, or at least when they knew that there was a
problem at the Pentagon, they activated site R. But it took several hours
before they could be certain that site R was completely up and running. And
what the senior military people and defense people had to do was keep the
national command authority intact. This is the chain of command that goes
from the president or the vice president to the defense secretary or the
deputy defense secretary, both civilians, and then to military commanders who
would transmit any kind of military orders. So in order for site R to be
fully functioning, there has to be an authorized member of the national
command authority at site R. That turned out to be Paul Wolfowitz, who flew
there in a helicopter. He was deputy defense secretary on 9/11.

Mr. CREED: Against his will. He did not want to go.

Mr. NEWMAN: He didn't want to go.

Mr. CREED: He wanted to stay at the Pentagon.

Mr. NEWMAN: Nobody wanted to leave the Pentagon, for obvious reasons. And
then they had to make sure they had full connectivity, which means the video
teleconferences had to be running, all the communications stuff had to be
running. They had to have the ability to transmit orders from site R. And it
was a touch-and-go situation for several hours while the NMCC at the Pentagon
was filling with smoke, there were some people who felt they should evacuate.
Building managers were telling them they should evacuate. They were measuring
carbon monoxide levels in the NMCC; they were going up. The fire chief was
explaining to joint staff officers that carbon monoxide poisoning makes people
do wacky things, they lose judgment but they don't know they've lost judgment.
And the fire chief said, `Do you really want people inside the Pentagon making
decisions under conditions like that?' And by mid or late afternoon on 9/11,
they did get the full connectivity to site R. So finally at that point the
backup facility was up and running for good.

GROSS: The Pentagon was built to withstand attack. And that special
construction actually presented some unique problems for the firefighters.
Would you describe what some of those problems were?

Mr. NEWMAN: The Pentagon initially was actually--the impression is that the
Pentagon is a fort. But the Pentagon was not actually built as a fort. In
fact, when it was built in the early '40s, it was considered to be a temporary
military headquarters during World War II that would be turned into a book
warehouse or an archive for government documents. And because of that, it was
built with floor structures and a physical structure that was heavy for the
time, but not fortified. So it was built to the higher end of design
standards for the time. But that's only so it could support the weight of a
lot of paper.

Over the years they upgraded it, and there were some upgrades actually going
on on 9/11. It was about a 10-year renovation project, and they had done some
things like install blast-resistant windows, which were in place on about half
of the area where the impact happened, and those were designed to withstand a
bombing like the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. That was really the--you
know, they studied the dynamics of that bombing, and that's how they developed
standards for these blast-resistant windows. The Oklahoma City bombing, of
course, was a truck bomb that blew up from the outside, so they built these
windows at the Pentagon to withstand blasts from the outside.

What happened on 9/11 was there was a blast from the outside that became a
blast from the inside, so the impact of Flight 77 created multiple explosions
from all directions, and some of those--most of them, in fact--were explosions
from the inside trying to get out. And the blast-resistant windows did not
break. So there were areas within the Pentagon where many people believe
these blast-resistant windows absolutely saved lives because, in areas where
the explosion could have penetrated further into the building, the blast-
resistant windows kept it away. But there were also areas where the
blast-resistant windows actually contained the explosion, instead of allowing
it to vent to the outside, if you will, and it just contained the explosion
inside the building, which intensified the effects inside the building.

Mr. CREED: For firefighters, as a firefighter, when you go into a burning
building, one of the things you want to do is try to let the heat vent out of
the building, the smoke and the heat get out so you can see what you're doing,
you can find victims, you lower the temperature. Firefighters were taking
sledgehammers and trying to smash through these blast-resistant windows.
Normally would just, you know, they would break with a small tool. We have
accounts in the book where they saw firefighters two at a time smashing
sledgehammers into windows and being unable to break it. Also where victims
were trapped inside and unable to break the windows to escape.

The protective material on the outside walls of the building, which was
Kevlar, they had Kevlar cloth lining, which is the same thing that's used in
bulletproof vests, when the plane tore through the building, it pulled that
all throughout the building. And so later when they were trying to recover
remains and search the building, you had this cloth material that was almost
impossible to cut through, even with power tools, which made it just
incredibly difficult for the firefighters to do their job. It just--some of
that stuff no one ever anticipated being a problem during an incident like
this.

GROSS: On 9/11, after the Pentagon was attacked by the plane, part of the
roof was on fire. What the firefighters didn't know until they were told was
that if the fire on the roof spread much further, it would basically put the
whole Pentagon out of commission. Would you explain what the problem would
have been?

Mr. CREED: On the roof, initially fire chiefs thought that was a pretty
minor problem. There wasn't a significant structural issue, it was sort of
separate from the rest of the building. It wasn't going to get down and set
offices on fire. They considered it to be a low priority issue, and so they
essentially made it a secondary effort. What they found out early the second
day was, when a military officer approached the fire chiefs and said, `We have
a problem. The fire's burning on the roof towards antennas and other critical
uplinks so we can communicate around the world. If those uplinks are
destroyed, the terrorists have won. We can't communicate. Pentagon is
ineffective.'

And this was just a complete and total shock. The fire chiefs thought, you
know, Chief...(unintelligible)...Chief Schwartz from the Arlington County Fire
Department thought they had pretty much everything under control, and here you
find, now we've got to get up on this immense roof, which is very difficult to
traverse, and it's on fire, and we have to figure out ways to get ahead of the
fire and stop it from spreading to these critical points.

GROSS: So what were the problems in dealing with the roof? Because there
were similar problems that the firefighters had with the blast-proof windows.

Mr. NEWMAN: They couldn't get the roof fire out. Firefighters are trained
for--they're trained to, you know, deal with fires on the top of buildings and
they do all the time, on warehouses, on strip malls, things like that. Again,
this just gets back to the unusual and really unique way the Pentagon was
constructed. So the roof is about a foot thick of concrete with different
layers of horse hair insulation, which nobody ever heard of at the time. They
didn't even know that they used to use horse hair as an insulation.

And they couldn't get to the fire. So part of the wooden structure was sort
of sandwiched between a foot of concrete on the top and other material
underneath it. So they just could not get to this wood that was burning. And
you would think, well, how did the fire get there? The fire got there because
the jet fuel spewed everywhere, and the jet fuel just got into places where
ordinary flames probably wouldn't get. And in some areas, it lit off right
away, and in other areas it just sat there until an ember ignited it or a gust
of wind came and ignited it, and they just could not get to this layer of wood
that was sandwiched between basically concrete on both sides.

And the wood just kept burning very slowly, burning all around the building
until it actually started to circle the building on the inner area. At which
point, even if there had not been this sensitive stuff on the roof, the fire
could then have gone back down and caught other parts of the building on fire.
So it's just a very tricky problem. By the time they realized how serious it
was, they put all the firefighters they could get up there and ladder trucks.
They actually put porta-potties up on top of the roof so they could kind of
run this longer-range firefighting operation up there than they had ever
anticipated.

GROSS: So how did they get around the problem of the concrete?

Mr. CREED: Initially there was power tools brought up, you know, saws to cut
through cement, concrete. Most of those broke, and the majority of the labor
was done by firefighters taking off their coats and using sledgehammers, axes
to just brute force pound through the concrete. Lots of times they pounded
through the concrete, they try to do something called a trench cut where like
cutting a break in a forest fire so they could catch the fire and stop it
before it spread any further. Well, they would get where they thought they
were ahead of the fire, pound through the concrete, with just incredible
effort. And you have to remember, it was a very nice day on September 11th,
September 12th, bright, sunny. This was difficult to work in. There's smoke
everywhere. They're pounding through the concrete.

They get through finally, make a small hole and look through, and the fire's
already past that point. It's already beat them, and all that effort was for
nothing. They have to grab their tools, run 50 feet further down the roof and
try to get ahead of it again before it spreads past so they can made that
break and stop the advance of the fire. This happened, you know, many times.
They did get power tools later on, but even after that, the vast majority of
the effort was sledgehammers and sweat.

GROSS: The Pentagon on 9/11 was both a crime scene and the site of a fire
that needed to be put out as quickly as possible, and it was the site of a lot
of incredibly sensitive, top secret documents. So were there conflicts
between what the FBI wanted to do to preserve it as a crime scene and to
preserve sensitive documents and what the firefighters wanted to do to just
kind of get the fire out?

Mr. CREED: This was a big part of what was fascinating about how they
organized this, and the fire chiefs ended up being the people in charge. And
part of that was that these people would all work together, the Arlington
County fire chiefs had worked for years to prepare for the possibility that
they might have one of the very important buildings in their county hit. And
while they weren't completely prepared--no one ever is--they had done a lot of
the groundwork to prepare relationships so that the FBI agents knew the fire
chief. They'd worked together, they'd trained together. And they were
prepared. They could do simultaneous evidence collection. There was some
madness. You know, one of the fire trucks was parked and an FBI agent asked
if they could move it so he could get a piece of evidence underneath the
truck. And the firefighters like, `Why don't you just crawl underneath?'
There was a lot of controversy with that.

Mr. NEWMAN: Terry, you get to the point. These are organizations that are
essentially at cross purposes in a situation like this. Firefighters aren't
used to delicate work. They are used to bashing into burning buildings and
doing whatever they have to do to put out a fire. The FBI, when it collects
and preserves evidence, is meticulous, and they want to gather up stuff that
is as untouched as they can get it. And this is a situation where you've got
fire trucks driving all over the place, and literally driving over pieces of
the airplane on the western lawn in the Pentagon, plowing through parts of the
building just to get to where the fire was. And you literally had FBI agents
saying, `Hey, don't touch that.' And we've got firefighters rolling their eyes
and FBI agents trying to assert their authority over the scene. And they had
to find a way to make it work.

GROSS: Did they?

Mr. NEWMAN: The FBI began with this attitude that `we have to sort of
preserve this scene in pristine shape.' So, for instance, they initially tried
to collect and catalogue every bit of the airplane that they could find. So
now they're gathering up literally thousands and thousands of pieces, some
tiny bits of aluminum as big as a fingernail, and somebody at the FBI finally
said, you know, it's now a day or two later, `OK, at the beginning, we didn't
really know what happened here. Now we've collected all this other
information. We know that this was an airplane that hit the building. We
know which airplane it was, we know what kind of airplane it was. Do we
really need to gather up every little bit of this airplane?'

And finally they went to the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board,
and said, `Look, in order to reconstruct the parts that we need to know about,
do we need to collect all the parts of the airplane or just certain parts?'
And the NTSB said, `We'll get back to you.' And they discussed it and decided
you really need the two black boxes, the flight data recorder and the cockpit
voice recorder, the famous black boxes. And so at about two or three days in
the FBI said `OK, we're going to change our procedures. We're going to stop
worrying about all these little pieces of the airplane and we're just going to
concentrate our efforts on finding the two black boxes.'

GROSS: Which they found?

Mr. NEWMAN: They did. They found them about three days in. So I think that
was on September 14th. The cockpit voice recorder was destroyed. In fact, it
was in such bad shape when they found it that the FBI person who dug it out of
the rubble actually was about to throw it in a garbage can. And somebody who
had a degree in aerospace engineering, who was another FBI agent, said, `Just
hold on a second, can I see that?' And they knew what the black boxes were
supposed to look like. A lot of people have probably heard that they're not
black, they're orange so that they're findable. But these were very black
because they'd been in this fire. And they weren't able to get anything from
the cockpit voice recorder. But they were able to salvage the other one,
which is the flight data recorder which tells you the flight path of the
airplane, these various perimeters of flight altitude and things like that.
And they actually did use that to reconstruct, with good precision, exactly
what happened to the airplane in the last 30 minutes of the flight.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are the two authors of the new
book "Firefight: Inside the Battle To Save the Pentagon on 9/11." Rick Newman
is a reporter for U.S. News and World Report. Patrick Creed is an amateur
historian, volunteer firefighter, and is a US Army Reserve officer who
recently returned from serving in Iraq.

Rick, let me read something that you've written. You wrote, "Ground zero may
still be sacred ground, but the Pentagon was treated as a battlefield where
the military removed their dead, commemorate them and prepare for the next
battle."

Mr. NEWMAN: There was clearly a battlefield mentality among the military
people at the Pentagon. And I would say that even transferred somewhat to the
firefighters. There was some conflict between soldiers trying to get back
into the building and firefighters trying to keep them out. And we talked to
many firefighters who said they actually hated doing that because they could
see that what these soldiers were doing was basically responding as if they
were in war and as if they were in combat, which is what they're trained for.
And the Defense Department insisted on taking out its own dead from the
building. They had members of the "old guard," which is the Army's ceremonial
unit, carried out every set of remains. Even if they weren't the ones who
actually did the documentation and the recovery, they would formally carry out
each set. And it was all done with great dignity, in a very military way,
with extreme care to do it away from TV cameras, too. They actually did some
things to block the view of cameras that were set up on the hillside
overlooking the Pentagon, just to do this with the proper formality.

GROSS: Give us a sense of what was lost at the Pentagon on 9/11, both in
terms of the number of people who died and also the documents and other
secrets that were lost.

Mr. CREED: In terms of human loss, there were 64 people onboard the
plane--of course, all who died--59 passengers and crew plus the five
terrorists. A hundred twenty-four people died at the scene, one person died
in hospital.

In terms of documents and building space, I don't think--I haven't heard
anyone lament that they lost all the copies of their budget. The human toll
and the emotional toll was significantly greater than anything in terms of
planning. We talked to a lot of people who had, for instance, all their
budgeting data for the next five years destroyed and burn up. Nobody really
talks about that much. No one I interviewed talked about that they lost a
cool painting on the wall, or that all their data and all their e-mails had
been wiped out. It really focused on the human toll and the emotional toll of
that feeling of vulnerability. The most important building in the Department
of Defense had a plane slam into it going 500 miles an hour. And it was able
to do that and it gave that sense of vulnerability.

You see that now in how the Pentagon and all the Department of Defense
buildings, they've changed a tremendous amount about the inside of the
buildings, how they're laid out, the safety precautions, evacuation
precautions, to prevent a lot of the things that went wrong on 9/11.

Mr. NEWMAN: Terry, the...

GROSS: What are some of those changes?

Mr. CREED: For instance, all the furniture that was in the Pentagon, as part
of the renovation, was modular furniture, like you said, like a cubicle form.
When you go to any large office space, you see all the cubicles lines up.
That's also how people figure out where the exits are. You walk down this
line of cubicles till you get to someone's desk and you turn left and that
takes you to the exit.

When the plane came trough, it came through like a hurricane or a tidal wave
of flame. It knocked all that down, set it on fire. We know of several
people who, crawling towards exits, weren't able to find their way out and
died. They were part of a group and they got lost in the smoke and weren't
able to their way out.

Since then the Pentagon, if you go to it, has glow tape along the wall with
arrows and along the tape pointing to exits. When you get to a door, if it's
not an exit, it's got red X in glow tape across it. People in the building
have escape hoods like you used to see in magazines in air malls and the
airplanes, catalogs for sale. They have those now so they can put it on and
make it out through the smoke.

Mr. NEWMAN: And the windows have been changed, too.

Mr. CREED: Right, every so often in the windows there's an etched
firefighter's helmet so that, with a lever, so that window can be removed,
even though it's bomb resistant, so people can escape and firefighters can do
their job, as well. Those were all things that weren't in place. You know,
if you're crawling on the floor--the exit signs are lower because smoke and
heat rise, people couldn't see the exit signs up above. There's been a lot of
changes like that done because they realize that it just wasn't as safe as it
could have been. And the newer areas have all seen those. And if you go to
the Pentagon now, they--on a tour even, you can see those. And they explain
those as you walk through.

GROSS: You know, there are so many horrible things that you described at the
Pentagon on September 11th. But it's funny, one of the things that so many
people comment about is that horse hair insulation. This was insulation that
was used in the 1940s when the Pentagon was built. And we heard Marc Garlasco
at the beginning of the show talk about the horrible smell it produced. Many
people who you interview comment on how horrible the smell of the burning
horse hair was. Can you talk a little bit about why that made such an
impression on everybody?

Mr. CREED: It's a unique smell. You don't smell burning horse hair in your
daily routine. That, and many people, also, the smell of jet fuel. Jet fuel
was everywhere. And when the water sort of hit the fire, water was flowing
every where, carried fuel all throughout the building. And so that was
another smell that people have come to overwhelmingly associate with the
Pentagon and their experiences there. Smell is one of those triggers. You
can smell something and it brings you instantly back to your childhood. It's
one of those psychological triggers that, in you mind, sticks out a little bit
more than other senses.

GROSS: Patrick, you were the person who initiated this book. You started the
research, and then, Rick, you came on the project and the two of you
collaborated on the book. While doing the book, Patrick, you were called up
to go to Iraq. You were a member of the Reserves, the individual ready
reserve. You were called up and basically given 30 days, and told that you'd
have to report after that.

Mr. CREED: Yeah, I got a letter October 17th, 2005, and it said be at Fort
Jackson on November 15th, 2005, and be prepared for about 500 days of active
duty service and you're going to Iraq.

GROSS: Did you think you were going to be called up?

Mr. CREED: I suspected it. It was--you could see at that point that the war
was suddenly going a lot longer than anyone anticipated. And it was not a
surprise. It was a shock, but it was not a surprise. It was--especially
since I'd only known Rick for about a month. He'd just signed the book deal
that, you know, `finally someone's going to let me write this book and then
we're going to get to publish it and it's going to be about the story I've
been working on for all these years' and then, right when we have success,
hey, guess what? You're going to Iraq.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is going to sound like a very insensitive question, but, Rick,
how did you feel? You just signed onto this project and your partner on the
project is going to Iraq where, you know, I hate to put it in such crass
terms, but you know, who knew if he'd survive the tour.

Mr. NEWMAN: Well, those crass terms are the same terms I used to think this
through. I knew Pat was going to be going when we agreed to do this project
together. And we figured, oh, we'll have e-mail. Pat said, `I have instant
messaging, we'll be able to keep in touch.' And I thought, oh, it's just, you
know, it's a one-year window. Just deal with the one year out and back, and
then we'll just pick up, you know, I'll, you know, I'll do what I can when
he's gone. And it just didn't work that way, not surprisingly.

Pat was in a very difficult part of Iraq. Pat got injured in a roadside
bombing, came home for a little while for medical treatment. I sort of made
the mistake of thinking, oh, great, I've got my partner back. He's OK. Then
Pat returned to Iraq. And when he finally came home for good, which was May
of last year, I thought again, oh, great, I've got my partner back. But Pat
was very busy going to funerals and, you know, we've talked about the
experience--you know, he was a returning combat vet. And we did not just pick
up where we left off.

GROSS: Patrick, what was your injury?

Mr. CREED: I suffered a traumatic brain injury. I had a series of roadside
bombs that gave me concussions, blasts very close to the vehicle, and finally
had one final one in August 2006 that knocked me unconscious and gave me the
TBI, traumatic brain injury, and created a lot of problems. It was very
difficult, and I was working with some significant side effects with PTSD of
working, and I was in Diyala province near the city of Baquba. It was not a
nice place. There was a lot of really bad things that happened.

And, you know, I highly recommend that if you're ever going to write a book,
don't try to do it from Iraq. And if you have to then you better have a
partner as good as Rick. Rick's calming influence and calling and e-mailing
home and having the distraction of writing chapters--you know, I told Rick,
you know, one day I was getting up to go on a patrol and I was sick to my
stomach. I was terrified to get in the vehicle. We'd been almost blown up
the day before, and here we are going out again. And it's just kind of
maddening to think of, but I did have chapter 17 under my arm. I was taking
it with me so that if there was a gap I could do it. And I remember looking
and I was like this is madness. But I did take it. And in the course of a
meeting that day where the Iraqis were all chattering away in Arabic with each
other at a local town, I was editing chapter 17 with a red pen, awaiting for
the interpreter to tell me what they were saying.

GROSS: Did you do a good job editing it under those circumstances?

Mr. CREED: That's up to--it was very hard. Because you came back from, you
know, it was 100, 120 degrees outside. You bring all this equipment, you're
getting shot at, or just even just a day where you weren't getting shot at, it
was just a long day out on the road or talking with people, dealing with
stress. You come back, try to communicate with my son at home and my wife,
former wife, and trying to deal with all that stress. And then there's six
e-mails from Rick about the book. And you have to dig into those and print
out the chapters and try to dig through that. And Rick's like, `Well, we need
more information, can you call this guy?' Well, OK, now I got to walk to the
other side of our small base and get on the satellite phone and call some
firefighter and try to ask him, you know, `Can you tell us which entrance you
went through again? We can't remember. We're trying to get it right.' And it
was crazy but, you know, that's kind of how it worked out.

Mr. NEWMAN: I thought it would be healthy for Pat to have a few petty
distractions...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. NEWMAN: ...while he was in the midst of a war zone.

GROSS: Yeah. Pat, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think traumatic brain
injury is a new injury unique to the war in Iraq suffered by people who have
concussive injuries from being near the explosion, not from being hit
directly, but from the reverberations of the explosion. And doctors are still
trying to figure out how to deal with it. I think there's a lot of questions
about medical compensation for it. What have your symptoms been?

Mr. CREED: There's been a few funny ones that were kind of a surprise. I
used to have an amazing recollection for remembering people who I'd worked
with from years and years before in the Army. Went to basic training, you
walked by me on the street, I'd say `Hey, I remember you.' Now I have a funny
thing that's called facial blindness. I can't remember what people look like.
If the editor from Random House walked in the room right now, I wouldn't know
it was her. And some people stick, some people don't. But the vast majority
of the people I meet, I'm not going to be able to remember who they were or
what they looked like. I can remember their names, that I talked to them, the
situation. But it's kind of like everyone's wearing one of those pantyhose
ski masks over their faces and I can't remember them. It's tough. I don't
like going to shopping malls anymore because people walk up to me and say hi
and I don't know who they are. And if it's a controlled situation, you know,
you're going to someone's house or a school board meeting, it's a little bit
easier to piece together who people are.

But I have some trouble with reading. It's very hard for me to follow words
down a page. It's got an eye tracking thing that the doctors at the VA are
working very--have been very helpful. I've had a very good experience with
the Veterans Administration. Very helpful. They've done everything they can.
Their biggest complication is me. And I can, you know, trying to make it to
schedules and make it to appointments and all of that.

But the armor in our truck saved us. We had the upgraded armor trucks by the
time I was in Iraq, and a blast that would have probably destroyed most other
vehicles in the world and previous wars, we survived. And it was just a
tremendous amount of concussion and pressure that rolled over and threw us.
And it was pretty devastating at the time. I still see that. I can remember
those blasts, even the big brown flash before I lost consciousness on the last
one.

GROSS: So it was after you got the traumatic brain injury that you came home
to recuperate and then were sent back to Iraq?

Mr. CREED: I came home with my injury and I kept thinking I was going to
return. The doctors were undecided about whether or not I was hurt bad enough
that I could go back. I wanted to go back. My soldiers were there. My
friends were there. I felt terrible being at home while they were still in
combat. There were two majors in my unit. One was the commander, I was the
other one. He was wounded after me, and so the unit was essentially
leaderless. They sent one major to replace the both of us. He was killed
four days on the job, Major Alan Johnson. That was devastating to me. I went
to his funeral at Arlington while I was still home.

I volunteered to go back and received a medical override to go back and
essentially bring the unit home. I wanted to go and be with them and bring
them back. And that was the reason I was against the medical advice. And
they gave me all kinds of preconditions: I wasn't supposed to go on missions,
I wasn't supposed to go on convoys. When I got back I ignored all those, of
course. But I went back to try to bring my guys home. It was very hard being
home and knowing that all the people who I trained with and worked with were
still there.

GROSS: Are you still fighting fires?

Mr. CREED: Yes. I'm a member of the local volunteer fire department in
Havertown, Pennsylvania, volunteer fire department. I live across the street
from the firehouse.

GROSS: Just one more thing. You know, here you are, you're writing this book
on the Pentagon on 9/11. The Bush administration makes this connection
between the 9/11 attacks and Iraq, starts a war in Iraq. You end up fighting
in that war. By the time you were called up to go to Iraq in 2005, a lot of
the evidence that the Bush administration had presented to support invading
Iraq had been disproven. So how did you feel, you know, writing this book
about September 11th, being sent to Iraq after a lot of the supporting
evidence had been kind of thrown out?

Mr. CREED: Well, to make it as simple as I can, you know, a firefighter is a
lot like being a soldier. You don't really worry too much at the time about
how the fire started; your job is to put it out. And being a soldier, my job
was to go over and do everything I could to improve the situation as best I
could. And I did that. Obviously there's been--proven that there's no
connection between 9/11 attacks and Iraq. They weren't involved. But that
didn't influence it. There's not a lot of soldiers who sit around and kind of
dwell on the philosophical aspects of the war. Your immediate goal, like a
firefighter, your goal is to put the fire out, not burn to death in the
process. And as a soldier my job was to do everything I could to complete the
mission, keep my soldiers alive and not get killed in the process.

GROSS: I want to thank you both so much for talking with us. Thank you, and
be well.

Mr. NEWMAN: Thanks for your interest, Terry.

Mr. CREED: Thank you very much, Terry.

GROSS: Patrick Creed and Rick Newman are the authors of "Firefight: Inside
the Battle To Save the Pentagon on 9/11." Creed is an Army Reserve officer,
volunteer firefighter and amateur historian. Newman is a staff writer for
U.S. News and World Report. "Firefight" will be published next Tuesday.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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