Within an hour New York City’s nightmare had spread to Washington, D.C. The capital city was placed on emergency alert, and the business of government ground to a halt as uniformed pages and U.S. Senators alike poured out, bewildered, through the doors of the Capitol. In keeping with contingency plans that had never before been put into action, Congressional leaders, cabinet members and other high-ranking officials were whisked away to secret hideaways around the capital as national monuments, federal offices and the streets themselves were cleared of people. Heavily armed Secret eService agents guarded the White House. But it was only with the 9:45 a.m. attack on the Pentagon, once impregnable but now crippled and clouded with smoke from the crash of American Airlines Flight 77, that the true scope of the terrorists’ mad ambitions was fully revealed.
45, lawyer, author and television commentator
“My plane has been hijacked!” frequent CNN legal analyst Barbara Olson told her stunned husband, U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson. Calling from her cell phone aboard American Airlines Flight 77, she described how several men with knives and box cutters had hustled passengers to the rear of the Boeing 757 aircraft after it had departed from D.C.’s Dulles International Airport en route to Los Angeles.
Olson lost her connection, then called back, telling her husband—who was in his Washington office watching reports of the World Trade Center attack—that she loved him. Then “the phone went dead,” says attorney Bob McConnell, a close friend. “When Ted heard the plane hit the Pentagon, he knew it was her.”
The conservative author of Hell to Pay, a barbed critique of former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Olson was a regular on Larry King Live, where she recently was one of Congressman Gary Condit’s harshest critics. She was also awaiting next month’s publication of The Final Days, a book on Bill Clinton’s last chapters as president. Once divorced, in 1996 she married the twice-divorced Olson, a father of two who last year argued George W. Bush’s case before the Supreme Court in the Florida election recount crisis. “We have individual careers and come together at home,” she said. Indeed, Olson had delayed her flight to L.A. by a day so she could have breakfast with her husband on Sept. 11, his 61st birthday, at their Great Falls, Va., home. “She wanted to be with him,” says McConnell. “He is devastated.”
54, First Lady of the United States
Strong emotions flickered across Laura Bush’s face as she stood before reporters in Washington, D.C., at 9:45 a.m. Had events gone as scheduled, Bush was to have spent the morning delivering testimony about the importance of early childhood education before the U.S. Senate health and education committee, her Capitol Hill debut. Instead, flanked by Senators Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), she seemed tense but kept her composure. “Our hearts and prayers go out to the victims of this act of terrorism. All of our prayers are with everyone there,” she told a handful of journalists, Asked how families should react to the disturbing news, the First Lady replied, “Parents need to reassure their children everywhere in our country they’re safe.”
With that, Bush and Kennedy were escorted by the Secret Service to a holding room, where she waited for a motorcade to take her to an undisclosed safe location (a secure phone was used to speak to her husband in Florida and check in on her twin daughters at their respective colleges) while the White House was evacuated. By 10:15 a.m. she was on her way—her day, like that of so many others, coldly transformed.
33, a network engineer, Department of Defense
“I happened to load my Web browser and saw the picture of the World Trade Center with a hole in it. I ran over to the closest television I could find. I thought, ‘If that’s a high profile target, then so are we.’ Then I heard this sound like a missile and then a loud boom. The windows shook. Everyone hit the deck. We looked out the window, and there was a huge fireball shooting up in the air. We shut everything down, locked up and got out of there. We got into the Pentagon parking lot and turned around. We were stunned. A good friend of mine was helping with the wounded, helping carry the bodies out. He said there were body parts everywhere. He was using his suit coat to tend to people’s wounds and his briefcase to carry medical supplies.”
Ft. Myer, Va., firefighter
“I looked up and saw a white airplane that had blue paint on it, less than 50 ft. off the ground, coming right at us.It was no further than 250 yards away. I yelled to my partner, and we both started running. There was a fireball. He was knocked down, and I don’t know if I was. There was a flash, a horrific crunch. There was a moment when I felt the fire. That’s when I dove on the ground and slid underneath the van. I know the van was instrumental in keeping me from getting any more injured. I certainly do thank the Lord that we survived this. We both had second-degree burns on our arms. From that point on we began to try to make the damaged fire truck work. There was debris falling from everywhere. We tried to take charge of what was going on and did what we could do to help people who were trying to get out.” Wallace worked for another 45 minutes before he was told to get treatment for his own wounds.
Army public affairs specialist
“It was a boom and a shudder. We’d just heard about the crash at the World Trade Center, and we were chatting about how safe we felt at the Pentagon. Immediately, people started filling in the hallway. I don’t like crowds. It was bad enough that the hall was filled; you couldn’t see in front. Nobody’s cell phones were working. People were expecting a second jet. Then we heard a jet going over; it was kind of scary. There was a real sense of urgency to get us away from the building. It could have been a panic situation, but if you’re going to be in a crisis, it’s good to be in the Pentagon. I kept telling my friend [a coworker who is expecting to give birth in three weeks], ‘You’re going to have a hell of a story for this kid. In a few weeks we’ll be through this.’ ”
32, Arlington County, Va., firefighter
“We knew we had a job to do. We went into the building, searching for victims. There was so much fire, smoke and damage. You couldn’t see a lot because of the smoke. It was dark, black smoke, and the walls were buckled out, and fire was balling down the hallway. We did not see people inside. We were on the ground floor. I haven’t felt something that hot before. We were just doing what we could. They evacuated us three times because of reports of other planes, and then the fire would gain, and there was nothing we could do but keep fighting it. I was there until about 4 p.m. I got dehydrated and was taken to Arlington Hospital. It felt good to be home. I was in the Navy and in Desert Storm. They need to find out who did this and do something drastic about it.”
46, correspondent, USA Today Live television
“This morning the traffic near the Pentagon was just crawling along. I looked out the window and saw a plane coming over, loud and very low. I could read the “AA” on its side. It looked like it was 20, 30 ft. up in the air. It was coming in a direct path to the Pentagon. I started to say to myself, ‘This plane is going to crash.’ It disappeared behind the trees, and there was a massive explosion. I kept muttering, ‘Ohmigod, ohmigod.’ It was surrealistic. The traffic had stopped. A woman was screaming, ‘Turn around, turn around! The Pentagon has been hit!’ It was just pandemonium. I pulled over and ran to see what I could see. There was debris from the jet on the overpass. I was watching the military personnel set up a triage. These tarps, red and green and yellow. And flags. They were running around with stretchers. All of a sudden they grabbed them and started running for the Pentagon. Three or four military officers came running up saying, ‘You’ve got to get back! Another plane’s been hijacked and is heading our way.’ People were saying it was 25 minutes away, others said 25 miles away. Then an F-16 came screaming by the Pentagon, and people cheered. There was a staff sergeant standing next to me saying, ‘What do they do if it’s a passenger plane and they shoot it down?’ I tried to stay busy, tried to work [filing television reports]. When all this was over, an Army guy came over and said, ‘The FBI wants to talk to you.’ I dissolved into tears. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’re in a state of shock.’
“Psychologically, this is pretty jarring. So often [reporters] show up, and the yellow tape is up and it’s after the fact. To be there and watch it was very tough. What’s really hard is my daughter goes to school with a lot of girls whose parents work at the Pentagon. One of her best friends…They didn’t know what happened to her father. Now the parents are accounted for.”