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THE SPRING AFTER THE TERROR

Pentagon as Phoenix

April 22, 2002

Rachel Decker calls it weird. She was at her Pentagon desk searching the Internet for information on a rumored plane crash into New York's World Trade Center, as crazy as that event sounded. Suddenly, an immense explosion erupted outside her office. An airliner, carrying 64 hijacked souls and 10,000 gallons of fuel, had skimmed the parking lot at 360 miles an hour, nipped three light poles and slammed into the southwest corner of America's most important military bunker. The date, of course, was Sept. 11, 2001, 60 years to the day from the Pentagon's original groundbreaking on the site of a fetid housing project called Hell's Bottom.

And it was just five days from completion of phase one of the Pentagon's massive 16-year renovation. In fact, the terrorists struck the five-sided symbol of American military might at its mightiest point, the renovation. That section, unlike any other corner of the 25,000-worker building, had reinforced columns, blast windows and, most important, fire sprinklers. Started in haste weeks before Pearl Harbor, the Pentagon hasn't met building codes for half a century. The same explosion and enduring fire a few hundred feet north or east could have consumed the whole structure, killing far more than the 125 who died inside.

Now, after one month of shock and one month's demolition and struggle against toxic mold, plus five months of reconstructing nearly half the renovation, hundreds of construction workers, so determined they refused to take holidays off, are well along in the race against their own countdown clock. The goal: have some office workers at their desks the morning of Sept. 11, 2002. Watching and talking to these teams in hard hats, the word "defiance" leaps to mind. Indeed, the Pentagon's reconstruction is dubbed the Phoenix Project.

Perhaps because the military is accustomed to inevitable casualties and takes such pride in its can-do spirit, there's nothing funereal about the third terrorist crash site of 9/11. Hard by an expressway across a wide, barely green lawn now patrolled by bereted MPs with dogs that bark at the sight of each other, the attacked corner is not a devastated destruction site but a gung-ho construction site.

Everything is bustle. No one stands around. While cherry trees blossom and passenger jets again roar overhead from nearby Reagan National Airport, twin cranes lift one-ton windows, roofing and stones into place. Thirty percent of the Indiana limestone facing is rehung.

Inside the reconstruction area, the size of two Home Depots, workers apply lessons from interviews of attack survivors--over 2,300 escaped that day. They've added exit stairs and turned every well and hall into a hardened shelter. Emergency electrical lighting has been replaced with photoluminescent signs that glow for hours like watch faces; they've been placed lower, beneath potential smoke.

Pentagon workers clearly appreciate their construction colleagues. They smile and wave from windows bearing signs: "You Rebuild What Evil Has Destroyed." "You're Heroes!" Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld is among those at every construction ceremony, staying late to talk and autograph hard hats.

Outside, on a nearby knoll that once wore grass, two beleaguered saplings have been chosen as collection points for mementoes and messages, photos of the fallen, numerous coins, plastic flowers and a pair of children's blue mittens. Inside, hundreds of workers toil around the clock, rebuilding their own fortified memento. Take Mike Flocco, a sheet-metal worker from Delaware. In mid-September he transferred to the Pentagon project to be near his son, Matthew, 21, a sailor who perished last fall somewhere in the area his father now renovates on sunny spring days.

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Tuesday: A small town confronts big news.

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