I witnessed incredible bravery and heroism at the Pentagon on Sept. 11 and for weeks after that day. I was privileged to be one of the line supervisors from the FBI’s Washington Field Office (WFO) who responded to and worked the crime scene at the Pentagon. My counterpart, Supervisory Special Agent John Perren, and I were the two field office supervisors who directed crime scene operations, body recovery efforts, scene and personnel security operations for this event. We worked directly with and for the FBI On-scene Commander and his deputy.
Immediately after the impact of the hijacked aircraft, WFO personnel responded to the scene to conduct an evaluation and to link up with the local fire chief in Unified Command. The first agent arrived on scene less than 8 minutes after the impact, joined Unified Command and an agent was embedded there until the scene was turned back over to DOD almost 6 weeks later. He was joined at the scene by approximately 250 FBI personnel over the next minutes, hours and days.
Moments after the impact, personnel from inside the building began rendering aid to their fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians. Drivers stopped their cars and ran to the scene to help those fleeing the building, which was engulfed in flames. People who had no connection to the building itself risked their lives to render aid and rescue those that they could. This same selfless mindset was exhibited in the following days when agency after agency, law enforcement, fire and emergency services and rescue teams volunteered their services, expertise and equipment to the scene.
No agency was turned away and each served with all of their expertise and skill. Secret Service agents responded during the first week with mobile security badging equipment so that perimeter and access security could be upgraded, maintained and documented for later use in court. NTSB personnel helped identify aircraft parts from twisted structural steel from the building itself. NCIS and USAF OSI personnel helped the FBI identify and secure classified military documents while DC Police Dept K-9 teams responded to assist in searches. U.S. Marshall’s Service Special Operations teams linked up with FBI SWAT teams to provide perimeter security, and a team from DEA HQ showed up and asked, “Where do you want us and what can we do to help?” That was the mantra of everyone wearing a badge at the scene.
FBI lead Evidence Response Teams worked tirelessly conducting painstaking crime scene operations, including the recovery of those that perished. Personnel from the U.S. Army embedded with these teams help render honors and the appropriate care of their fallen comrades as the victims were carefully documented and then removed to an FBI morgue set up on the Pentagon grounds. FEMA Urban Search and Rescue teams, including one each from Virginia and Maryland, moved through the still-burning building searching for survivors, marking locations for recovery efforts and making sure that the scene was structurally safe for the evidence teams.
Time and space do not permit the documentation of each and every person’s heroic efforts, but 9/11 was a time once again in American history when “uncommon valor was a common virtue.” I have heard that people were frightened on 9/11, but I can honestly say that I did not see a single person at the Pentagon who looked scared. I saw a lot of anger and witnessed professionalism, patriotism and esprit de corps that few people are ever privileged to witness. I have never been more proud of those who serve, who carry a badge, who sacrifice for their fellow citizens or to be an American.
Sept. 11 was a dark day when cowards struck and thousands died, but it was also a day that saw some of the qualities that make America great exhibited in a parking lot by the Pentagon, a side street in New York city and at 10,000 feet in the air over Pennsylvania. It was a day that America showed what she was made of once again.