The Washington Post
Firefight: Inside the Battle to Save the Pentagon on 9/11by Patrick Creed
Pentagon firefighters Alan Wallace and Mark Skipper had just
Amid all the stories of tragedy and heroism on September 11, there is one tale that has yet to be told–the gripping account of ordinary men and women braving the inferno at the Pentagon to rescue friends and co-workers, save the nation’s military headquarters, and defend their country.
Pentagon firefighters Alan Wallace and Mark Skipper had just learned the shocking news that planes had struck the World Trade Center when they saw something equally inconceivable: a twin-engine jetliner flying straight at them. It was American Airlines Flight 77, rushing toward its target. In his Pentagon office, Army major David King was planning a precautionary evacuation when the room suddenly erupted in flames. Arlington firefighters Derek Spector, Brian Roache, and Ron Christman, among the first responders at the scene, were stunned by the sight that met them: a huge flaming hole gouged into the Pentagon’s side, a lawn strewn with smoking debris, and thousands of people, some badly injured, stumbling away from what would become one of the most daunting fires in American history.
For more than twenty-four hours, Arlington firefighters and other crews faced some of the most dangerous and unusual circumstances imaginable. The size and structure of the Pentagon itself presented unique challenges, compelling firefighters to devise ingenious tactics and make bold decisions–until they finally extinguished the fire that threatened to cripple America’s military infrastructure just when it was needed most.
Granted unprecedented access to the major players in the valiant response efforts, Patrick Creed and Rick Newman take us step-by-step through the harrowing minutes, hours, and days following the crash of American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon’s western façade. Providing fascinating personal stories of the firefighters and rescuers, a broader view of how the U.S. national security command structure was held intact, and a sixteen-page insert of dramatic photographs, Firefight is a unique testament to the fortitude and resilience of America.
From the Hardcover edition.
The Washington Post
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Creed, a U.S. Army officer and volunteer firefighter, and Newman (U.S. News & World Report; Bury Us Upside Down) interviewed over 100 people who endured the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon and its aftermath. Their book describes the epic struggle of firefighters, police, first responders, and others from the time of the attack through the completion of rescue and recovery operations ten days later, when the matter was turned over to the FBI. About 90 people are listed at the front of the book as "recurring characters," and their heroic efforts are detailed in firsthand accounts that, in a concise, readable manner, show just how difficult it was to operate effectively in the midst of one of the largest structure fires in U.S. history. The task simply of coordinating government, fire, and rescue agencies in battling the inferno and rescuing victims and then of conducting forensic and related crime-scene investigations was monumental. The authors also discuss how the Pentagon maintained its command infrastructure despite the attack and how victims, rescuers, and their families were affected. It is the personal stories, told moment by moment, that should keep readers interested and inspired. This gripping, often harrowing story of courage, conviction, and survival is recommended for all collections, although those looking for a more comprehensive account should also consider Pentagon 9/11 from the Department of Defense Historical Office.
A well-paced, well-written account of a successful battle. It was fought by numerous civilian firefighting companies from the Washington, DC, area, especially those from Arlington County, where the Pentagon sits. The response by firefighters from the Virginia and Maryland suburbs, the District, and also from nearby Reagan National Airport was admirably rapid and the dangers to them were immense; the relatively small loss of life in the Pentagon is a tribute to their courage and skills. Hundreds of workers-civilian and military-risked their lives and certainly harmed themselves by breathing toxic fumes laced with petroleum and building dust to save coworkers, and readers will learn of the many people deserving recognition. What many who are familiar with the 9/11 attacks do not know is that those gathered to save the Pentagon, normally occupied by 25,000 people, were warned that another commercial airliner was potentially inbound, perhaps to finish the job. This saga is much less well known than the story of the New York City Fire Department responding to the attacks on the World Trade Center. Teens will be enlightened and inspired by this valuable book.-Alan Gropman, National Defense University, Washington, DC
“Firefight is a gripping human drama and a powerful story–not to mention a significant addition to the annals of American history.”
–David Morrell, author of First Blood
“Overshadowed by the calamity in New York, the attack on the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, was nonetheless a day of extraordinary drama, heroism, and tragedy. With riveting detail and a compelling narrative, Patrick Creed and Rick Newman have done a superb job in Firefight of capturing the courage, chaos, and sacrifice of that remarkable day.”
–Steve Vogel, author of The Pentagon: A History
“A gripping inside look at the swift actions taken by a small group of firefighters who saved the Pentagon from destruction.”
–Bing West, author of No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah
“Firefight presents a different view of September 11, getting into the actions and mindsets of both the firefighters and the military in Washington D.C. A powerful read.”
–Richard Picciotto, co-author of Last Man Down: A New York City Fire Chief and the Collapse of the World Trade Center
“Firefight does an excellent job of showing the unique issues presented when the heart of America’s military was attacked on September 11, 2001. As I read this book, I felt a brotherhood with the courageous professionals at the scene of the Pentagon and their need to ameliorate the suffering of others.”
–Lt. William Keegan, Jr., PAPD., author of Closure: The Untold Story of the Ground Zero Recovery Mission
“This little-known but equally horrifying story of 9/11 will raise the hair on your neck and add to the historical outrage inspired by these senseless murders. The firefighters are seen in grit and in heroism as they fight their way through the Pentagon flames to contain the fires, triage the wounded, interrelate with the FBI, and search for the all-important black boxes. Read this book to remind yourself just how shocked you were that day.”
–Dennis Smith, chairman of First Responders Financial and author of Report from Ground Zero
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Read an Excerpt
Tuesday, September 11, 2001, 8:50 A.M. There was one hell of a ﬁre up in New York. Nobody seemed to know what had happened, whether it was an accident or a terrorist attack or something else. But one thing was for sure–the FDNY had a long day of work ahead.
At Fire Station 4 in Arlington, Virginia, half a dozen ﬁreﬁghters watched TV with a kind of professional envy as smoke poured from one of the towers at the World Trade Center. The television commentators were speculating about what had happened and what it meant. Some kind of airplane seemed to have smashed into the North Tower, in downtown Manhattan, just as the workday was getting started. But nobody knew what kind of plane. Or why it hit the building.
The ﬁreﬁghters, however, were more interested in what was happening inside the tower. There was very little on TV about that. They had a pretty good idea, though.
Capt. Denis Grifﬁn was a burly 20-year veteran who had joined the Arlington County Fire Department back when canvas coats and hip-high rubber boots were the standard protective gear. He recalled some details of the 1945 crash of a B-25 bomber into the Empire State Building, which wrecked several ﬂoors and cut most of the building’s elevator cables. This looked similar. With the elevators probably out, he ﬁgured, the New York ﬁreﬁghters would be walking up hundreds of stairs, with axes and other tools and hoses and air packs–probably 50 pounds of gear for each guy–while an avalanche of people coursed in the opposite direction.
“Imagine getting all those people down the stairs,” Grifﬁn bellowed, his usually calm voice roused with excitement.
“Just think what it must be like humping all that gear up to the top of that building,” added Bobby Beer, a salt-haired West Virginian who had been ﬁghting ﬁres as long as Grifﬁn.
“Goddamn,” Grifﬁn said, “that is gonna be one hell of a long walk.”
Arlington had a few high-rises, but nothing like New York. That’s what made the New York City Fire Department so legendary–just about any kind of ﬁre there was, the guys in New York had seen it. Now they were ﬁghting what was probably one of the toughest, highest ﬁres ever, and the crew at Station 4 foresaw all kinds of problems. Even if they could climb that high, water pressure in the tower had probably been cut to a trickle. How would the New York crews put out the ﬁre? Would they be able to carry up the heavy tools needed to extract victims who might be buried in rubble? And how would they get to people trapped above the ﬁre? Did they have helicopters that could do rescues from the roof?
“Shit,” somebody joked. “Those guys in New York get all the best ﬁres.”
A shrill chirping sound disrupted the armchair ﬁreﬁghting. The room went silent as a series of staccato beeps got louder. It was a ﬁre call at an apartment building, and the dispatcher was summoning multiple units: Engine 109, Engine 101, Engine 105, Quint 104 . . . That was Grifﬁn’s unit. He and his crew of three others rushed to the truck, jumped into their turnout gear, and started the engine.
It was not shaping up as a good day to get dental work done. Vice Adm. Scott Fry, the director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, had orders to ship out soon for a new job as commander of the Navy Sixth Fleet in Naples, Italy. And he had to get to the dentist before he left.
Just as Fry was about to leave his ofﬁce, his executive assistant called out, “Hey, you won’t believe this.” The TV was on. “It looks like an aircraft hit the World Trade Center.”
Fry watched for a moment. That was odd, he thought. But probably just a freak accident. He told his secretary to call his cell phone if anything came up, and headed out the door for his nine o’clock appointment.
At the clinic, the news was on in the waiting room, with coverage of the incident in New York. The newscaster was asking somebody if there were any reports on the size of the plane that had hit the building. Had it been a small, private plane? “No,” an analyst said. “It looks bigger than a civil aircraft.”
Fry was antsy. This didn’t feel right. The lean, frenetic admiral was pretty wired to start with, and he debated heading back to his ofﬁce. But then the dental assistant called him in. At least we’ll get this over with fast, he thought.
The dentist started prepping him for a novocaine shot when they heard a shout from an outer ofﬁce; there was some kind of commotion. Then Fry’s cell phone rang. It was his assistant. “Sir,” he huffed, “I don’t know if you saw it, but another airplane hit the World Trade Center.”
That was all Fry needed to hear. “This appointment is over,” he announced, pushing the dental tray out of the way and leaping out of the chair. He walked swiftly out of the clinic. Out in the corridor, he started to run. One airplane hitting a skyscraper, that was damned suspicious. But two . . . there was no doubt about it. It had to be a terrorist attack.
Fry raced to the National Military Command Center, the Pentagon’s highly secure nerve center. Above the command center was a suite of rooms known as the Executive Support Center, or ESC, where the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other senior ofﬁcials would meet to discuss urgent matters. A video teleconference link could connect them to the White House, the State Department, the CIA, and military commanders throughout the world. Running the whole complex was Fry’s job.
As he bounded up a spiral staircase that led from the command center to the conference room, a group was already gathering. Stephen Cambone, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s right-hand man, was there, for the moment the ranking civilian. He and Fry started discussing what they knew about New York: not much, except what they could see on TV. Everybody in the room knew that events were unfolding that would likely lead the nation into war. But right now there were more immediate concerns. Should the Pentagon send a hospital ship to New York? An Aegis cruiser? An aircraft carrier? What would it take to get National Guard troops into Manhattan? And what was the status of the nation’s air defense network?
Like the men in Denis Grifﬁn’s company, Derek Spector, Brian Roache, and Ron Christman had raced to the Arlington apartment ﬁre. As with most calls, there turned out to be no ﬁre–in this case, just some burnt coffee smoldering on a stove. It had been a quick call, pretty routine–except that as they were packing up to leave, somebody had mentioned a big ﬁre up in New York. An airplane had hit a high-rise. So when the three ﬁreﬁghters returned to their station in south Arlington, they went straight to the kitchen and ﬂipped on the TV.
It was an astonishing sight. There were now two airplanes. Smoke poured from both towers of the World Trade Center, and the networks kept re-airing footage of the second plane–clearly a commercial airliner–roaring into the South Tower, followed by a spectacular eruption of ﬂame and debris.
“That’s weird, man!” Roache roared. “Fucking weird! This has got to be some kind of incident!”
Spector was the acting ofﬁcer on the crew–standing in for another ofﬁcer, who was on leave. He was the most experienced of the three, but he had never seen anything like it. Terrorism, maybe–but it seemed too big even for that. Didn’t terrorists use truck bombs? And operate on the ground?
Spector was a part-time ﬁreﬁghter in Frederick County, Maryland, where he lived. A lot of ﬁreﬁghters did that–earned their pay in a big department, then volunteered or worked part-time locally. Spector’s shift in Arlington would end at 7:00 A.M. the next day, and he was scheduled for a shift in Maryland right after that. He’d be late, so he called a colleague in Frederick, to work something out. They made a plan. Then they talked about New York.
“Hey, be careful man,” Spector’s friend told him. “That could happen down there.”
“Nah,” Spector answered. “That kind of stuff doesn’t happen down here in Arlington.”
Protestors were heading for the nation’s capital. And law-enforcement ofﬁcials were determined to avoid a melee.
Dignitaries at the International Monetary Fund met from time to time in Washington, D.C., and until recently the biggest problem had been gridlock caused by ﬂeets of limousines blocking the streets. But global ﬁnancial institutions had become a rallying point for protestors upset about poverty, economic unfairness, and a litany of other problems. Demonstrators numbering perhaps 100,000 or more were planning a huge march to greet the world bankers at the end of the month.1 At similar protests in other cities, chaos and violence had erupted. So throughout the Washington area, public safety ofﬁcials were planning how to keep that from happening in D.C.
The ﬁreﬁghters were FBI Special Agent Chris Combs’s assignment. After joining the Washington Field Ofﬁce in 1998, Combs noticed that the Bureau had solid outreach programs to local police departments, but not to the ﬁre squads. Before joining the FBI, Combs had been a ﬁreﬁghter on Long Island, up in New York, where he grew up, and he still had two cousins on the FDNY. He knew that in a major emergency or terrorist incident, like the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, it would be the ﬁre department–not the police or the FBI–doing rescues, battling ﬁres, and going into wrecked buildings. “We’ve got all these great relationships with police, but not with the ﬁre departments,” he had told his bosses. “If there was a major bombing today, the ﬁre chief is going to own that scene. He needs a relationship with the FBI.”
Combs got the go-ahead to begin a liaison program with local ﬁre departments. He set up joint training programs, made sure the FBI understood ﬁre department procedures, and got to know the ﬁre ofﬁcials in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Today he was teaching a class on crowd control, in case ﬁreﬁghters had to respond to an incident during the IMF meetings that involved police cordons, tear gas, or masses of people.
As Combs lectured about 50 ﬁreﬁghters and police ofﬁcers at the Metropolitan Police Academy near Capitol Hill, he impressed the group with his energy and enthusiasm. A passion for law enforcement came across in his eager speech and animated body language. Traces of a New York accent added authenticity.
Combs’s audience was silent and attentive, until one of the ﬁreﬁghters reached into his pocket and pulled out a cell phone. Combs scowled, thinking how rude it was to take a call in the midst of his class.
Then the ﬁreﬁghter blurted out, “It’s my wife. She says New York is under attack!”
Combs decided on the spot to cancel class. The group moved to another room, where there was a TV. Then Combs’s pager went off– the message said to prepare for a possible deployment to New York. “I gotta get out of here!” Combs announced. “I gotta get to New York!” He sprinted out the door, jumped in his car, and headed for the FBI’s Washington Field Ofﬁce in downtown D.C.
This sounded like a big incident. It could last for days. Combs decided to make a quick stop at his Capitol Hill town house on the way–it couldn’t hurt to toss some clean socks and underwear in his car.
When Denis Grifﬁn and his crew returned to Station 4, the mood was a lot more somber than when they had left. The second plane had hit New York. The TV networks had footage, and kept showing it, over and over. Both towers were retching thick black smoke–typical of fuel ﬁres. Something horrendous was happening.
Bobby Beer was on the phone with some buddies who belonged to a federal search-and-rescue task force. They didn’t have orders yet, but from the looks of things on TV, they ﬁgured they were going to be sent to New York to help search for victims at the World Trade Center–or anyplace else that might get attacked. The task force was starting to muster. “Be safe,” Beer implored one of his pals.
Chad Stamps, another ﬁreﬁghter, called his best friend in the department, Paul Marshall, who was on leave that day. The “wonder twins,” as they were known, were notorious for jokes and pranks, especially when they were around each other. There was no joking now. “Are you watching this?” Stamps asked.
“What the fuck!” Marshall shouted on the other end of the phone. “How do you ﬁght a ﬁre like that? What are they gonna do?”
Somebody else pointed to the TV and said it looked like the top of one of the towers was askew. Then the ﬁreﬁghters started speculating about what sorts of landmarks terrorists might target if they were to attack northern Virginia. The most obvious was the USA Today complex, which included the two tallest high-rises in Arlington. They had aimed for the tallest buildings in New York, right? So wouldn’t they do the same thing here?
Or they might go after CIA headquarters, somebody volunteered. Or the Pentagon. Or the White House and the Capitol, over in D.C.
The chirping sound interrupted. “Apartment ﬁre,” the dispatcher announced, “1001 Wilson Blvd . . .”
Time to get back to work.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Patrick Creed is an amateur historian, volunteer firefighter, and U.S. Army Reserve officer who recently returned from a tour in Iraq as a civil affairs officer with the Army’s Special Operations Command. Creed has one son and lives in Havertown, Pennsylvania, where he is a member of Bon Air and Lansdowne Fire companies.
Rick Newman is an award-winning journalist and staff writer for U.S. News & World Report. He has also written for The Washington Post and many other publications, and is the co-author of Bury Us Upside Down: The Misty Pilots and the Secret Battle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Newman has two children and lives in Westchester County, New York.
From the Hardcover edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This is a great book. Very well written. It will keep you reading until the end. This book takes you from the time the plane was headed into the Pentagon until about a week after. Everything inbetween is so much more than what you ever saw on TV, read about in the news or caught online. To read the inside story of what it was like as a first responder to such a terrible national tragedy was amazing. The author did a great job in bringing together all of the story lines of the various people and entities involved in saving the Pentagon after the attack. While we all knew the damage was bad, I know I did not have perspective on what it was really like for those who worked at the scene on that day back in 2001. This book goes a very long way in explaining what happened in that first week as far as putting out the fire (which took a while for a myriad of reasons), clearing out the debris (I had no idea how much work had to be done to make parts of the Pentagon even safe to work in) and identifying bodies and body parts. The appreciation I have for our fire fighters, FEMA crews and many others who are first responders is even greater now. This is a great book and a must read.
This is not a book to be taken lightly, or one that you can just read in a night. I found myself having to put it down and digest what I had read. As I sit here on the Eve of the 9th Anniversary of 9/11, I find myself grateful that so many hours were put into the writing of this book. I can truthfully say that the events in this book are true. Several of my husband's colleagues were at the Pentagon that fateful morning. It may be why I was so drawn to this particular book. I can say that their stories match. Just recently I watched a television show on Nat. Geo. entitled DC 9/11. Once again the facts lined up with the book. I do warn that it is very graphic, but there is no way to sugar coat the fate of those injured or killed. To do that would not convey the depth of the hatred that terrorist have for the USA, and those that were born here or live here, regardless of race, gender or religion. This is a book that will stay with me the rest of my life. I am so proud to be an American, and to stand with my fellow Countrymen as we stand together as One with the Great American Spirit that lives within the majority of our hearts. God Bless the families that lost so much 9 years ago. It certainly goes without saying God Bless our troops, their families and all those that support them as the continue their mission of ridding the world of terrorist.
As a native of the Washington, DC area and a federal employee, when I first heard of the horrific terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, my immediate thoughts went to the Pentagon and if any of my colleagues were there. Thankfully, none were. Since 2001, countless books have been written about those caught up in the awful events of that day. Understandably, many have focused on what transpired in New York City at the World Trade Center towers because of the massive carnage and loss of life. However, it was not until I came across this book, that I was able to read for the first time a comprehensive account of the attack on the Pentagon and the battle to save the building. The book takes the reader behind the scenes as firefighters and rescuers frantically work to rescue survivors and then try to save the structure from the spreading flames. My only criticism of the book is that the author has a tendency to often present too much detail regarding the events. This said, the book is still a gripping account of the events and the brave people caught up in it. I highly recommend it to anyone interesting in learning more about the Pentagon attack.
Awesome book about the other tragedy on 9-11.
A must read for all fire service brothers. Cool,calm and collected as our brothers face a day that our country is being attacked.