People Stream Back to Smoking Pentagon as Firefighters Battle Blazes

Published September 12th, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

People streamed back into the Pentagon by the thousands Wednesday, in a somber parade past the smoking ruins where a hijacked airliner smashed into the building, leaving a still unknown number of people dead. 

Firefighters battled stubborn blazes that burned through the night on the building's rooftop, while search and rescue teams used listening devices without success to try to find signs of survivors in the rubble. 

"They don't believe there's anyone alive," a Pentagon official said. "No signs of life." 

Only small pieces of the aircraft were visible, said Ed Plaugher, chief of the Arlington County fire department. The aircraft's "black box" voice and data recorders have not been found yet, he added. 

The process of identifying the dead and notifying next of kin has begun, said Victoria Clarke, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, announcing that a center was being set up in a nearby office to help families whose loved ones are missing. 

But Pentagon officials still had no estimate of how many were killed when a hijacked American Airlines Boeing 757, coming in fast and low, smashed into the first floor of the military headquarters, collapsing a large section of the building. 

The Arlington fire chief said Tuesday between 100 and 800 people may have been killed, but on Wednesday Plaugher said that was only "a ball park estimate." A Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said reports of as many as 800 dead were "completely inaccurate."  

Pentagon employees navigated sealed roads and police checkpoints to get into the massive building, a wounded symbol of US military might. 

They quietly poured into the building, greeted by the acrid reek of smoke, darkened hallways, police tape that closed off nearly half of the building. 

Some paused at windows that overlook the building's central courtyard where firefighting efforts were still underway. 

Arcs of water were shot to the roof from firetrucks positioned in the courtyard, nicknamed "ground zero" because it was presumed to be the target of Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles during the Cold War. 

It was used as a triage center after the attack and sheets of white plastic where the dead and wounded were brought and attended to by emergency medical teams were still neatly laid out on the courtyard lawns. 

"I'm wondering if I still have got an office left," said one man, gazing at the smoke rising over the courtyard. 

People gathered in small knots, discussing the attack in hushed voices. 

Police with walkie talkies roamed the halls, waving people away from stricken sections of the building. 

An estimated 20,000 people work in the Pentagon, by some measures the world's largest office building and the headquarters of the US military. 

"The Department of Defense is open for business," Clarke declared, putting a brave face on the devastating blow suffered in Tuesday's attack. 

The jetliner hit a section of the building which was was believed to have been less populated than usual because it has been undergoing renovation. 

Smashing through the Pentagon's outer ring, where senior officials have offices, it penetrated halfway to the building's central courtyard. Fire force the closure of sections adjacent to the crash site. 

"We're still engaged in a very stubborn firefight," said Plaugher. 

Firefighters were having difficulty extinguishing the blaze and were making trenchlike cuts into the Pentagon's slate roof to get at fire in the rafters below, he said. 

Another source of fire was a puddle of aviation fuel at the site where the nose of the aircraft was believed to have been, said Plaugher, who was directing the more than 200 firefighters at the scene. 

Officials said the fire must be put out and walls pulled down to make it safe enough for search and rescue teams to do their work around the crash site, officials said. 

"Where the crash occurred, the floors are basically sitting on top of each other, and are creating a danger for the search and rescue team," said Richard Bridges, the county's assistant manager for public affairs -- WASHINGTON (AFP) 

 

© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

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