Lida Verner - The Pentagon

This is an email I sent out to friends and family on Wednesday, September 12, 2001. I have not made any spelling or grammar corrections ... <g> ... I was pretty tired when I wrote it.

Having just gotten off of 14 hours working at the Pentagon scene, please forgive me if my sentences don't make much sense.

When the plane hit the Pentagon, I headed off to the Rescue Squad knowing that our squad has a tendency to be called in to major scenes due to our personnel and equipment levels. On the way, I pulled into the nearest Exxon ... as soon as they saw my paramedic shirt, they came running out and fixed it before everyone else. Normally, I would have felt guilty, but I was in a rush. I finally got through to my sister on the cell phone (the cell phones and phone lines were completely jammed) who is also a paramedic at the Rescue Squad and she told me to definitely come it. I arrived at the Squad to find it packed with members including some old timers that I hadn't seen in years. I found out that we sent M10, M11, M12, M40, and Air 1 to Arlington County as well as RS18 mutual-aid to DC. Air 1, M11 and M12 were staged at the Pentagon and the medic units transported a number of patients. M10 and M40 were sent to provide coverage at various Arlington stations while RS18 covered for DC Squad 1. All of our normal ambulances were converted to medic units. People kept coming to the station with food which was greatly appreciated and eagerly consumed (the brownies were fantastic <g>).

I told them that I would stay the night and was asked to take the key for M10 (the main paramedic unit of the station) which I did. We went to American University for a status seizure call which turned out to be a highly excitable freshman girl in need of status attention. We decided to transport her to the hospital as a precaution and then discovered that our unit was not drivable so we called for an additional unit to transport. We put M10 out of service so I twiddled my thumbs back at the station until I was asked to relieve the paramedic stationed at the Pentagon. I said I would and grabbed my camera (priorities, ya know). It was about 130 am by this point and the roads were empty. We drove down GW Parkway which had been closed and didn't see a soul expect for the very startled deer at the side of the road. We came to a bunch of barriers which we skirted putting on our emergency lights so that nobody would shoot at us and made our way up over the hill ... to see the Pentagon lit up as if it were noon. Smoke was billowing a mixture of white and gray ... with red, blue, and white flashing lights surrounding its base. As we entered the area, we kept getting stopped by police and military personnel. "Relief crew" we kept saying and were waved on by. As we got closer and closer, the horrendous laceration in the side of the building got larger and larger. It didn't look anything like it did on TV. My mind just was not comprehending what I was seeing. I must have looked like a tourist as we slowly crept by the tremendous number of emergency vehicles surrounding the building in search of our crew. I found Air 1 and then was informed that M12 was located in the courtyard ... the middle of the Pentagon. The driver of M12 ran out and met us at the entrance to the tunnel and escorted us in. We drove slowly across the charged firehoses (a big no-no) to get through the tunnel. Water was running everywhere pushing the dust in streams through all the corridors.

We came out of the tunnel into what seemed like smoky daylight. The entire courtyard was lit up. Fire trucks and ladders where spraying water nonstop on the roof which was billowing steam and smoke. M12 was in the middle of it all ... the cot laid out covered with burn dressings and O2 bottles. The air was so thick you could taste it ... smoke, asbestos, tar, dust .... my eyes burned and I started to cough. I grabbed a mask in the vain hope that it would help ... well, it stopped the big chunks. The loud rumble of generators and firetrucks vibrated through my bones and the light mist from the firehoses high above was cooling to the skin. The ground was littered with trash. Little yellow flags were haphazardly placed in the grass around the courtyard. I ambled up to one of them and noticed that it said "evidence". Looking down at my feet was a body part. Parts of bodies, plane debris, and luggage littered the ground. Twisted, melted pieces of plane were evidence of the extreme heat and force that had been thrust into the building. When I relieved the medic, I was handed a handful of morphine and valium bottles. "Basically, all holds are off", I was told. This is a mass-casualty situation. Of course, the only casualties we would be dealing with were firefighters as there was no hope for any survivors.

"Let's wander", I was told by the driver. So I grabbed my camera and off we went. We made our way into the building (where we were not supposed to be) and I was suddenly reminded how surreal the whole experience was. We splashed through the water logged floors - 2 inches of running water covering my boots. The hallway was dark and smoky. The only sound was the sloshing splash of our boots as we slowly made our way through the corridors. The light from our flashlights cut an eerie beam through the smoke and dust bouncing off walls and showing paper floating in the water. We came to an opening between the rings. "Look", I was told and I followed the beam of light to a rather small perfectly round hole ... maybe 10-12 feet in diameter in the wall with a pile of rubble in front of it. At closer inspection, the rubble with littered with clothes, arms, and legs. "That's where the nose of the plane finally stopped", I was told. They had already removed the metal pieces ... all that was left was the hole. We were stopped from making our way to the upper floors, however, it was described to me as a burned out cafeteria with full cups of coffee still in mugs on the tables and bodies lying all over the floor.

We spent the rest of the evening watching and waiting. Body bags were placed over all the empty grass parts in anticipation of later work. Large stacks of body bags were placed off to one side. I spoke with the battalion chief who said that they were just trying to contain the fire to one section until dawn when crews would go up to the roof and ventilate allowing them to attack the burning wood under the tar covering the roof. It was too dangerous to do that in the dark. A man in a marine uniform stopped next to us and watched a bit. His chest was covered in ribbons. It turned out that he was the Deputy Chaplin for the Navy. His office was in the destroyed portion of the building and he survived only because he happened to be over at the annex when the plane hit. He need to talk which we did for a while. Soon after that, the courtyard was filled with chaplains all of whom were looking exhausted but needing to minister help. Since there were only firefighters available, we were inundated. They felt so helpless and they had lost a number of friends and colleagues. The Deputy Chaplin said that he had just sent 30 of his chaplains out to inform families. Later a two star general came by literally wringing his hands. All he could do was thank us. He looked so lost.

A relief crew came in for us around 7 am. It doesn't look like they will start bringing bodies out until later this afternoon at the earliest.

This is about all my fried brain can handle right now. I really need to get some work done. Oh ... forgot to mention ... one of our clients* was on flight 77 that hit the Pentagon.

~ Lida Verner 

(Gaithersburg, MD)

September 12, 2001

*Addendum —  the clients that were on the plane were the Wittington-Falkenbergs. They were the only full family that died on September 11. 

Whittington Falkenberg
Whittington Falkenberg