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After Pentagon Terror, a Waiting Ordeal

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TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Cecilia Richard had worked for the Defense Department more than 10 years, a civilian accounting technician who kept books for the Army. She was the baby of her family, and her sister Renee used to say the Pentagon was safer than most places in the capital.

By Wednesday morning, Renee Baldwin knew that wasn’t true. No one had heard from Cecilia in more than 24 hours, and when her five sisters and one brother met together at a family assistance center, officials there didn’t know her whereabouts either.

“It’s a waiting game. I know it’s going to be a long wait,” Renee Baldwin said. “All I want to know is if she’s still alive, clinging on, or has she expired? And once I know that, I think that I can maybe go on a little bit. . . .”

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After a day of terror and heroism on Tuesday, when a skyjacked airliner tore through the west side of the Pentagon, Wednesday marked the beginning of a new ordeal: the aching, exhausting and ultimately heartbreaking quest for the dead.

The strain told alike on the families of victims and those who tried to help them.

“We’re just offering a caring spirit, a caring attitude,” Lt. Col. Danny Morrow, a Salvation Army commander and a 40-year veteran of disaster relief, said of the support being offered to the families of missing Pentagon workers. “We’re not pretending that we have any answers for these folks, because we don’t.

“Who has any answers for what’s going on here?”

More than 100 family members trooped through a family assistance center improvised in a hotel ballroom near the Defense Department’s battered headquarters. Singly and in small groups, they were taken into separate rooms by counselors.

Few if any received specific information about their loved ones, but the implication of the lengthening silence seemed inescapable: No news was not good news.

“I would guess that realism tells you that if you haven’t heard by now, that the worst possible news is going to come out of there,” Morrow said of the black, gaping hole where firefighters and rescue workers still struggled throughout the day.

“I don’t know that anybody is saying that out loud, but I’d guess in the depths of their heart, they must be feeling that, thinking that and sensing that.”

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Morrow’s wife, Esther, also a career relief worker for the Salvation Army, was among those helping victims’ families. In recent years, she has responded to major disasters in North Dakota, Oklahoma and Georgia, “but nothing like this. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

Renee Baldwin felt the magnitude of the tragedy too.

“Deep down in my heart, I feel bad for all of them, because it’s not just my problem. Now, it’s a problem of the United States.”

Most of those in the area of the Pentagon hit by the airliner have jobs like Cecilia Richard’s. Many are civilians. Most work for the U.S. Army, smaller numbers for the Navy and Air Force. They are assigned to financial management, logistics and support units, not the armed forces’ combat arms.

Nonetheless, they are casualties of war, in the words of President Bush and other senior officials. And the foreboding that spread among their waiting families Wednesday was foreshadowed the day before, when the first rescuers arrived on the scene.

Thousands of Pentagon employees were streaming out the other side of the huge building, most of them largely unscathed. But many of those escaping from the impact area were badly hurt.

And the flow of survivors was never more than a trickle, which ended too soon.

One who made it out was Louise Kurtz, 49, who had just begun her second day on the job as an accountant. The blast scalded 70% of her body and knocked her unconscious.

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Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell, 40, was standing not far from where the American Airlines plane hit. He scrambled away on his hands and knees, but his face was severely burned and his lungs were choked with the fumes of jet fuel.

Raquel Kelly, 32, inhaled so much noxious smoke that she clutched desperately at rescue workers as her airways began to close. Paramedics saved her life by inserting a breathing tube in her soot-filled throat.

On Wednesday, all three were still fighting for their lives at Washington Hospital Center.

They survived thanks largely to rescue workers such as emergency nurse Tammi Royce, who fought back tears and put her own life at risk to helicopter into the disaster scene Tuesday morning.

“I can do this. I can do this,” the frightened nurse told herself as the helicopter descended into pandemonium. She and partner Barbara Brown, a more experienced flight paramedic, worked to save Kelly, even as disaster officials ordered them to retreat from the scene because another attack was believed imminent.

Navy Petty Officer Charles Lewis also was saved, but his narrow escape provided little encouragement about those still missing.

Lewis worked in the Navy’s media center on the first floor of the Pentagon near the point of impact. His office tracks the movements of Navy ships and monitors television news broadcasts.

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“We were well aware of what was going on at the World Trade Center,” Lewis recalled Wednesday. “Someone said, ‘If it could happen there, what could stop it from happening here?’ ”

Suddenly, an explosion erupted behind him. “There was a whooshing sound, like a gust of wind. I had no time to react and turn around.” Everything turned black and there was total silence for what seemed like five or 10 seconds.

Then chaos. Everything came tumbling down--chunks of wall, bookshelves. The floor caved in. Lewis’ foot became trapped, but he twisted it free.

“We heard people outside yelling and screaming. We were screaming and yelling to let them know where we were.”

One wall had a gaping hole--like a sandwich with a big bite taken out. Lewis pushed aside debris, struggled to the opening and fell halfway through it.

“Somebody grabbed me and put me on a cart, gave me oxygen,” he said. “They took me to the north side of the Pentagon” and then to a hospital.

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“For a minute, I thought I would die,” Lewis said. “Once I saw the light and the opening in the wall, I thought of my family and kids. It was adrenaline. I told myself, ‘I don’t want to die this way.’ ”

And when Michael Kurtz first saw his wife, Louise, who had been pulled from the wreckage and taken to a nearby hospital, he broke down.

He had known from the moment he saw television reports that the smoldering rubble was all that remained of the part of the Pentagon where she worked. But it was three hours before the Air Force veteran received a call at his Stafford, Va., home saying she had survived.

When he reached her in a Washington hospital, “I didn’t recognize my wife of 31 years,” Kurtz said. “I saw a person that looked like a mummy, but I knew under that shell [of gauze] was my wife.”

Louise Kurtz regained consciousness Wednesday. When her husband told her softly that he loved her, she nodded her head and wiggled her toes.

“I was ecstatic because I knew she heard my voice,” he said.

Times staff writer Robert Rosenblatt contributed to this story.

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