Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Cincinnati Post, A day of horror in the capital, by Jessica Wehrman,

September 11, 2001, The Cincinnati Post, A day of horror in the capital, by Jessica Wehrman, Scripps Howard News Service

WASHINGTON - Tuesday morning, Marine Cmdr. Mike Dobbs was standing on one of the upper levels of the outer ring of the Pentagon looking out the window when he saw an American Airlines 737 two-engine airliner strike the building.

"It seemed to be almost coming in in slow motion," he said later. "I didn't actually feel it hit, but I saw it and then we all started running. They evacuated everybody around us."

Dobbs was one of many people, Pentagon workers and passersby, who had an unwanted front-row seat at the worst terrorist attack ever on the nation's capital.

Floyd Rasmusen, a senior management analyst at the Pentagon, was inside the building when the aircraft struck. "All of a sudden all of my telephones cut off," he said. "I heard an explosion. All of a sudden I saw all of this flaming debris come flying toward me." He got his staff out of the building.

"I've got to find my wife," he said. "She's here someplace."

"I was standing outside, in the corridor, 10 feet from the door," said Defense Department worker Peggy Mencl. "The doors blew out and debris just came flying out from the doors. It blew me 10 feet." She was not injured, but still had debris in her hair.

"I was sitting at the computer typing an e-mail," said David Young, a liaison for a defense contract management agency, "and I felt the entire building shake... I had just finished watching the incident at the World Trade Center on TV. All that was fresh on my mind when the building shook."

Before the blast, watching what was happening in New York, "I said, there's no way to defend against that and they could get the Pentagon if they wanted to," Young said. "Those were my words five minutes before this happened."

Jim Sutherland, a mortgage broker, was on his way to the Pentagon at 9:40 a.m. when he saw a 737 airplane 50 feet over Interstate 395 heading in a straight line into the side of the Pentagon. The fireball explosion that followed rocked his car. Drivers began pulling over to the side - some taking pictures - not quite believing what they were seeing.

Lt. Commander John Sayer, a Navy reservist, was riding on a bus when he heard a thud. "It sounded like a very loud clap," he said. "At first I thought an airplane had hit in front of the Pentagon, but when I got closer I saw that it had struck the Pentagon."

Hundreds of civilians scurrying around the Pentagon flinched when a jetliner passed overhead before the total ban on air flights took effect.

Police began a sweep of the Pentagon parking lot. As a reporter was leaving, a security policeman carrying a submachine gun told him: "Sir, be advised, there may be some secondary devices scattered around. We have found things left behind like suitcases and briefcases. We are not touching them. We don't have the equipment to look for bombs."

Thousands of others who live and work in the Washington area found themselves adrift in a sea of chaos, smoke and terror.

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Solomon Ortiz was just beginning a press conference on security issues following the plane crash at the World Trade Center when word arrived that the White House was being evacuated.

"We closed down the press conference right there and got out of the building," said Cathy Travis, an aide to Ortiz. "My boss sent us home. There were a lot of people leaving the Capitol area."

Cell phones lines were jammed. Traffic was gridlocked. Lines at pay phones stretched long.

A seemingly calm woman riding in a taxi cab cursed President Bush as if to blame him, then curled in half, sobbing as if in physical pain, when the radio announced that smoke from the Pentagon attack was being seen throughout Arlington.

"My baby's down the street from there," she cried.

Ten minutes after the attack, the front of the Capitol was silent, almost peaceful, save the mournful tolling of bells from a nearby church. Quietly at first, then louder, the sound of sirens joined that toll.

At the back of the Capitol, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said he saw the World Trade Center attack on television, and heard about the attack on the Pentagon on his way to work.

"I've long been fearful something like this could happen," he said, adding that he often skips joint sessions of Congress because he fears such attacks. "I've imagined something like this could happen for a long time."

Fifty people - Capitol chefs and police officers, tourists and Senate aides - gathered for an outdoor prayer service led by the Senate Chaplain.

Ray and Joyce Reynolds, tourists from Kansas City, sat outside on the Capitol lawn, waiting for their tour buses and thanking God their vacation schedule sent them to the World Trade Center two days ago, not today.

Instead, they were touring the Capitol. Someone said an attack was underway. The tour guide ordered them to follow her. Along with throngs of tourists, they ran.

"I've never even dreamed anything like this would happen," said Joyce Reynolds. "I'm kind of an optimistic person. I never thought that sort of thing could happen over here."

Said Ray Reynolds: "Kansas City is looking really good to me right now."

Usually verbose senators were stilled by the attack.

"Weird, huh," said Sen. Herbert Kohl, D-Wisconsin.

Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., said he was ashamed that terrorists had managed to scare Americans.

"Officers are doing what they have to do," he said. "But I can't help but hate the fact they've shut down the entire area. That's exactly what the terrorists wanted - to cause panic. It looks like we're having to play into their hands."

Tong Hu, a tourist from Wuhan, China, came to D.C. with a tour group of 50 Chinese tourists, including her parents. They were among the throngs evacuated from the Capitol.

"My parents have dreamed of coming here to see the Capitol, to see the White House, their whole life" she said. "Now the whole trip is ruined. Now the only thing we want is to go home safely."

Hu said she did not feel safe.

"I've never been afraid for my life," said Christina Yeung, a Vancouver tourist who said she had survived China's Cultural Revolution. "This is the first time."

Evacuation of the Capitol was speedy but orderly. Students made the most vigorous dash to safety, followed by Capitol office workers. A jet, high in the sky, circled the Capitol and more people began to run.

Most Capitol Hill workers had a cell phone pressed to their ears; the most overheard phrase: "I'm OK, Mom."

After the Metro closed and subways and buses stopped running, workers began to walk, their pace far outdistancing the cars and trucks that lined the streets. Pedestrians and drivers were obeying the traffic signals, making for fairly calm streets.

Those who burst into tears were comforted by total strangers.

Also contributing to this report were Thomas Hargrove, M.E. Sprengelmeyer, Ryan Alessi and Martha Wilson.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

Publication date: 09-11-01

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