YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Outside Pentagon, a Defenseless Feeling

Scene: Many employees were watching the news of the New York City disaster when their own nightmare hit. Survivors emerge with stories of horror and heroism.


WASHINGTON — As she limped blindly through smoke and debris, smelling her burnt hair, feeling the pain from her peeling skin and a blow that had momentarily knocked her to the floor, Ann Parham thought about her mother.

"I thought about my mother and the kind of news she would be getting," Parham said. "I didn't want that to happen, so I kept moving."

Parham was among the lucky ones Tuesday on the west side of the Pentagon. She got out.

"I am very, very fortunate," she said. "I am blessed. Other people, I'm afraid, were not so fortunate."

'A Sinking Feeling That We Could Be Next'

Only moments before a hijacked airliner slammed into the Defense Department's massive headquarters across the Potomac River from the capital, Parham had been standing with co-workers watching television reports from New York.

"We commented to each other that we were at ground zero," she said. "In hindsight, we should have known right there to get out, but we didn't."

Patrick Smith, who also had been watching the horrifying news, remembered: "I just had a kind of sinking feeling in my gut that we could be the next target. When I heard the blast, I had no doubt in my mind what it was."

Smith and Parham were among the more than 20,000 civilian workers and members of the armed forces who evacuated the Pentagon Tuesday morning. Some were injured and emotionally shaken by brushes with death. Others were so far away in the vast structure that they felt only a thudding sound--"like snowfall coming off the roof," in the words of Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Jeanne Fites.

And many, including Fites, were struck by the contrast between the horror of what had happened inside and the serenity of an otherwise perfect, sunny, autumn-like day outside.

"People were calm, just not believing it," said Fites, who left her office on the opposite side of the building from the crash site and walked to safety in an adjacent park. "There was a beautiful breeze along the river."

Smith, a civilian records management specialist, and his co-worker Parham, the Army's chief librarian, were near the site where the plane struck.

"The only thing that separated me from the E-Ring," where the airliner hit, "was the copy machine room," Parham said.

Their office on the second floor was in a recently renovated section where old walls had been removed to create a huge area of small cubicles. "Dilbertville," she calls it, referring to the comic-strip character who has become a symbol of faceless office workers.

Parham was at a copying machine with her back to the explosion, but Smith was facing toward the outside, he said.

"I could see a fireball heading for me. I dropped to the floor and put my face down. The flame was there and then it was gone. It almost sucked the breath out of you.

"I stayed down until the sprinklers came on. Then I got up and started toward a window I could see," Smith said.

Running for Their Lives Amid Heat and Smoke

"Some military guys were at a door calling out and directing people out into the corridor."

There, Smith linked up with Parham. The fireball had apparently swept over her from behind. Something crashed down from the ceiling, hitting her head and felling her. Her left shoe disappeared, and she broke a toe.

But she too got up and started scrambling out, surrounded by intense heat and thick smoke.

"The next thing that came to mind was that I would be burned alive," Parham said. That's when she thought about her mother and pushed harder.

In the corridor, she found Smith. He took her hand and helped her follow a growing stream of people working their way outside.

"It's the most horrific thing I've ever gone through," Parham said. "I hope I never have to go through anything like it again."

Along the smoky corridors of the labyrinthine building, workers were streaming toward the exits to escape an enemy they didn't know but instinctively loathed.

"There were folks with burns, cuts, abrasions, smoke inhalation," said Army Maj. Ryan Yantis. "We've got some pretty high emotions here today."

Alan Wallace, a civilian firefighter who works for the Defense Department, was among those treated for burns. He and a partner were working near the helipad where the airliner first hit the ground.

He heard the roar of the plane, looked up and saw it about 50 feet above them. "Run for your life!" he shouted, and the two men dived under a firetruck stationed beside the helipad.

"There was a crash, a fireball. I didn't know what had happened. I said, 'Mark, are you OK?' There was debris everywhere."

He and his partner got up and worked for about 45 minutes helping people before Wallace was relieved for treatment of second-degree burns on his arm.

Army Lt. Col. Clarence Hilton, whose office is in the wedge of the Pentagon that was struck, said, "I had just got up from my desk when I felt the concussion. Parts of the ceiling began to come down, bits and pieces of it.

"Initially we got down, just in case there was a second explosion," Hilton said. "Then we evacuated."

Los Angeles Times Articles