The death toll from the terrorist attack on the Pentagon could go as high as 250, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in Washington late Thursday, as rescue workers picked through the wreckage to shore up the structure and retrieve the bodies of victims.
"When you look at the destruction in there it was like walking in hell," said Army Sergeant Major Aubrey Butts on Thursday outside the smashed section of the Pentagon that was hit head-on Tuesday by a hijacked American Airlines jetliner.
"The twisted metal, the intense heat that really and truly melted through real thick pieces of metal -- you just look and you knew it was horrific for the people who were in there," he said.
Rescue workers said sniffer dogs and listening devices have detected no sign of life in the rubble.
"It is clear to me the number is going to be between 200 and 250," Rumsfeld told ABC News commenting on the likely toll.
Earlier in a statement, the Pentagon said 126 people who worked in the building remained missing.
That did not include the 64 passengers and crew aboard the Boeing, which brought the preliminary toll of dead and missing to 190.
A senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said about 70 bodies had been recovered by late Thursday. About 40 of them had been moved to an air force mortuary in Dover, Delaware.
Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke emphasized that the Pentagon's figures were preliminary and that officials were still checking with Pentagon contractors to make sure others were not missing.
The figures show the army and navy bore the brunt of the attack. They included 68 army personnel, including 46 civilian employees; six army contractors; 42 navy personnel, including nine civilians; and 10 people from other defense agencies.
Since the attack, hundreds of workers have been putting out fires, clearing wreckage and searching for both bodies and evidence. Others were shoring up walls with railroad ties and oak planks to make recovery efforts safer.
The crash site was evacuated for two hours Thursday, after the FBI received a "non-specific" threat claiming a bomb was in the area, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. Employees later were allowed to return to work, he said.
A small fire broke out in the ruined section of the Pentagon late Thursday but was extinguished in about 15 minutes, local media reported.
The search for the "black box" cockpit voice and data recorders narrowed when pinging was detected in the rubble late Wednesday and again Thursday, an Arlington County firefighter told CNN.
"We haven't actually gotten the black box. We've got it narrowed down, I believe is what they said. So we're anticipating we're going to find it," said Scott McKay.
The cockpit voice and data recorders would shed light on the last minutes of the Boeing 757’s fateful flight before it slammed into the west side of the Pentagon.
"We have ideas where it is," said Bob Blecksmith, the FBI's assistant special agent in charge of the Washington field office.
Bodies were being photographed where they were found by FBI investigators, put into body bags by search and rescue workers, and carried out of the wreckage on stretchers by soldiers to a makeshift morgue before being transferred to Dover, workers said.
If soldiers "get sick in there or cry or they have their head down we immediately pull them off the team to make sure they are doing all the right things, to make sure they can get through tomorrow, as well as the rest of their life," Butts said.
Meanwhile, a family assistance center was set up by the Pentagon at a hotel in nearby Crystal City, Virginia, to provide information, counseling and support for people unable to locate loved ones, and the military services set up a hotline to answer questions – WASHINGTON (AFP)
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