NOTHING BUT THE FLAG
The windowless Pentagon conference room shuddered with a strange vibration seconds before the deep rumble of an explosion rocked the building. Colonel David Phillips glanced at his watch, noting the time—0937—while springing from his chair, running for the door alongside shocked colleagues.
As if in a slow-motion nightmare Phillips raced down the long Pentagon corridors in the most direct route to his far-side office. He quickly encountered emergency workers who already blocked the way. Without pause Phillips glanced around, desperately looking for a stairwell. He almost tumbled down the wide staircase toward the nearest exit. Pushing his way through crowds of evacuees, he sprinted outside.
He was blinded for a moment in the bright sunlight. As he looked west, his worst fears crashed into the center of his soul—gigantic roiling clouds of oily black smoke gushed from the distant side of the building. All that he had prepared for during his long Army career, yet had never personally experienced, stretched out before his eyes in a kaleidoscope of chaos.
Fire trucks and emergency vehicles were already jumping the curbs and tearing across the lawns as onlookers—witnesses—were driven back from the scorching heat, the stench of jet fuel and flames shooting out from a monstrous crater in the side of the Pentagon’s smooth, five-story wall.
His side of the building.
Where are my people? his mind screamed as he struggled to absorb what was clearly a mass-casualty situation and fought against waves of nausea at the realization that every one of his staff could be dead or lying wounded inside.
* * *
That fateful morning certainly hadn’t started out that way.
Phillips, a lanky military police officer, had only recently been parked in a relatively quiet temporary assignment at the Pentagon, as director of security for the Army staff, while waiting to take command of the 89th Military Police Brigade at Fort Hood, Texas. “We’re going to put you in a quiet job, in charge of Army security at the Pentagon for a few months, so that you can focus your energies on prepping up for your new command,” his superiors had told him. And it was working out very well.
Life was good for the forty-five-year-old native of Cleveland, Ohio. Things at his current home in Alexandria, Virginia, were humming along, and he had a great staff with an energetic senior noncommissioned officer at his side. His unit ran smoothly without a lot of stress. After almost twenty-one years in the Army his future looked brighter than ever.
Even the commute to the Pentagon had been pleasant that morning. The stifling humid heat of August in Washington had blown away, replaced by the kind of crisp, clear September weather that makes real estate agents salivate. On a day like today you could sell D.C. to anyone. After checking in with his office and grabbing a cup of coffee he’d hiked across the Pentagon complex to attend a meeting.
Phillips had idly wondered how long the building could function without the endless stream of meetings that occupied his days. Meetings, he decided, were a mental treadmill: Run like hell but never really get anywhere.
Everyone in the conference room was dutifully focused on the issues at hand when suddenly a faceless staffer—later on, nobody could recall who it was—erupted through the door shouting, “Quick, turn on the television. An aircraft has just crashed into the World Trade Center in New York!”
Someone snapped on the conference room flat screen and all present gaped at the terrifying sight of the North Tower of the World Trade Center consumed by billowing gray clouds of smoke, debris, and flames against the bright blue New York morning.
“How in the hell did that happen?” someone wondered aloud. “There’s not a cloud in the damn sky.”
Voices began to chatter. “Look!” someone exclaimed. “There’s an airplane.” In the background the camera caught a civilian airliner dipping low over the harbor and banking steeply.
“Jesus Christ!” The second plane impacted the South Tower in a fiery billow. Those in the meeting could only imagine the sound as pieces of debris showered downward and flames licked hungrily at the higher floors.
The room erupted with chatter. “This looks deliberate,” someone noted. “We’re under attack!” By now news crews began to focus long-distance lenses on hapless people crowding openings in broken windows, waving shirts, crying for help.
The tiny distant figures on the flat screen before them began, slowly, individually or while holding hands, to jump from more than eighty stories high to their deaths.
The conference room fell silent. Colonel Phillips struggled to comprehend the images before him.
It was as if time itself stopped, although everyone in that conference room knew that everything—reality itself—had instantly changed in a way that most civilians would not fully recognize.
And then under their own feet the entire building vibrated. A deep explosion resounded through the building. “We’ve been hit!” someone shouted. They rose simultaneously, moving as one for the door and whatever the future held.
* * *
Now outside, Colonel Phillips paused, trying to absorb the magnitude of the disaster that confronted him. It seemed to be a version of the aftermath of a car bomb in Beirut or some other war zone. Somewhere else in the world, certainly not America. He was nauseous with worry. How many of his people had been killed or wounded?
Even from a relatively safe distance he could see furniture, drapery, and plumbing hanging obscenely from broken floors, waving in the heat from roaring flames. Twisted rebar was exposed along jagged concrete edges where American Airlines Flight 77 had hit his office suite. Where are my people? The thought screamed again in his head, over the cacophony of shouts, sirens, and roaring engines.
A familiar face darkened by smoke popped out next to him without warning. His acting sergeant major, Sergeant First Class Harry T. Byrd, shouted into his ear over the roar of the fire, “We’ve got to get any of our people who are still alive out of there!”
Phillips made a quick visual reconnaissance. Before him a gaping hole was ripped in the side of the Pentagon. Where could they enter that gave them the best chance?
Some trucks had already broken out hoses and were beginning to pour streams of water into the inferno, made even more intense by burning jet fuel. Water hitting the flames turned into steam, further clouding the view. Bodies lay on the ground and on stretchers. Wounded military and civilian workers staggered from the wreckage. People—both fellow Pentagon workers and emergency services personnel—rushed to assist.
Phillips snapped into warrior mode, connecting with Byrd’s eyes. “Let’s go!” Ignoring emergency workers who were waving and shouting at them to get back they both swiftly moved into the flaming wreckage. They felt the flames burn their exposed skin.
Phillips smelled the singe of burning hair and recoiled at the stinging on his face and arms. Oily smoke blackened their uniforms. Stumbling through the debris they made their way to the destroyed offices.
There was no one left alive to help. Frantically running from office to office they shouted into the roar of the flames. With ceilings crashing down and flames erupting around them they realized that everyone was either dead or had escaped.
Phillips made it to his own destroyed office. He glanced at the wreckage and found one object that meant more to him than anything else in the room: an American flag, sheathed in a protective thick cloth case, damaged by flames but intact. Grabbing the flag, Phillips yelled for Byrd. “Let’s get out of here! There’s nothing more we can do.”
Together they stumbled coughing and choking from the ruined wing of the Pentagon, gasping for clean air to clear the smoke from burning lungs. As emergency workers surged past Phillips grasped the flag tight to his body. It was all he could save from the deadly attack.
Phillips was lucky. He survived the 9/11 attack without undue physical damage. Sergeant Byrd suffered lingering damage from smoke inhalation and would ultimately be medically retired from the Army.
Copyright © 2011 by Gordon Cucullu and Chris Fontana