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Outside Pentagon, a Defenseless Feeling

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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“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.”

“It was the ugliest sound you ever want to hear,” said an Army colonel who declined to give her name. “A low boom. And then there was fire and smoke.”

“You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” said Leonard Donaldson, a maintenance mechanic leader.

Two Arlington County firefighters, Derek Spector, 37, and Greg Gulick, 32, were among the first emergency personnel to reach the scene.

Rescuers Confronted by ‘a Wall of Fire’

Deployed to fight the fire roaring deep into the west side of the building adjacent to the Pentagon helipad, they saw people coming out of the scarred building, some moving on their own and some being carried.

“It’s a wall of fire that’s going to burn for days,” Gulick said. “There’s debris everywhere that is feeding the fire.”

“It was hot, very hot,” Specter said, noting that they could get no closer than 100 feet from the building.

Gulick called it “a war zone.”

Both firemen ended up in an Arlington hospital, Spector with a twisted ankle and Gulick felled by dehydration.

Because the Defense Department operates worldwide, some of those who found themselves fleeing for their lives were officials from out of town who were in Washington on business--including a group of 25 civilian Navy employees. The official leading the meeting remembered hearing an explosion before chaos descended.

“It was pitch-black, and it was full of smoke. It was very, very hot. We were pretty close to the fire and the explosion,” the official said, declining to give his name for security reasons.

Some who directed the rescue were members of the Defense Protective Service, which had been conducting emergency drills throughout the summer. Others were worker volunteers who held doors open or used their voices as beacons in the darkness.

“A lot of brave people got us out of that,” he said. “One guy directed us through the darkness. We were just following his voice. We were just holding onto each other and trying to walk our way out.”

Did he fear for his life? “I don’t know if you have time to worry about it. You focus on getting out.”

All 25 visitors made it out uninjured. Suit jackets slung over their shoulders, they walked more than an hour through late-morning heat, back to their hotels in downtown Washington.

“I think it’s starting to sink in--the enormity of the event,” he said. “We’ve had a great loss of life all over the nation today. I don’t think things are ever going to be the same.”

Once outside, many thought they were safe, but reports that a second plane might be approaching sent police rushing to move the mass of evacuees farther away.

“Get away from the building!” one officer shouted. “Get out of the area, everybody.”

Panic Overtakes Some Once They Reach Safety

“Stay low on the hillside!” another officer bellowed, trying to move those who had emerged on the high ground west of the building.

Though many survivors remarked on the calm nature of the evacuation, several noted that panic overtook some once they reached safety. “People were screaming and running,” said Timothy Magalis, a maintenance mechanic.

Ginger Groeber, a senior civilian employee, reached her car in the huge parking lot south of the Pentagon only to be besieged by evacuees pleading for rides. “People were just milling around in a daze,” she said. “They had no idea they were standing in a roadway. They were thrown off kilter. These people were panicking out there.”

Groeber was among the many who had stopped what they were doing to watch television reports of the attacks on the World Trade Center. “We were sitting around a table when all of a sudden heard a loud bam,” she said. “A military person, a general, said, ‘Let’s everyone sit here. That sounded like an explosion.’ ”

The general went out into a corridor and found windows blown out. “He suggested that we very quietly leave.”

Defense Department police “shepherded us out,” she said. “Our eyes were burning. Insulation was floating down in the air. We were shocked. It was obvious something very drastic had happened.”

On one grassy section of the riverbank, clusters of injured lay in a hastily prepared triage area. Sirens screamed in ever-greater volume as more and more emergency vehicles converged on the scene.

Even before the fires were extinguished, FBI agents lined up five abreast on Washington Boulevard west of the building and began gathering up debris in paper “evidence” bags.

And an F-16 fighter patrolled the skies.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld remained in the Pentagon throughout the day. He was in his office on the north side when the plane hit.

Pentagon spokesmen said Rumsfeld rushed to assist in the rescue effort immediately after the plane hit.

*

Times staff writers Megan Garvey, Jim Mann, Alan C. Miller, Richard Simon and Warren Vieth contributed to this story.


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