• William Toti

One Year Later: Frozen in Time

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

Most Americans have images etched in their minds from the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001. But relatively few can recall as vividly as I can the horrors after American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon. First published in US Naval Institute Proceedings in September 2002.

Every crisis brings with it instants in which time freezes, and from those moments on, every time you think of the event, the same images appear. In my first frozen moment, I am sitting at my desk in the office of Admiral William J. Fallon, the Vice Chief of Naval Operations (VCNO), and I hear the admiral's writer yell, "Oh my God, look at that!" I look up at the television to see a burning World Trade Center tower. I walk into the outer office to turn up the volume and hear a moronic CNN anchor theorize that the cause of impact was some sort of navigational malfunction.

We knew from the start there was no way navigational failure could cause an airliner to fly accidentally into a building on a clear day. After a few minutes of hearing nothing from our Pentagon Navy Operations Center, I suggested to Rear Admiral (then Captain) Doug Crowder, the VCNO's executive assistant, that I go to the ops center to see if they had any information we should pass to senior Navy leadership. It was my good fortune that he said, "Stay put. They'll call us when they have something."

At that point, I walked back to my desk to call my wife, but nobody was home. I left a voice message, telling her to take the kids out of school, stay home, and leave the phone lines open. (I learned later that when she arrived home an hour or so after the Pentagon had been hit, she assumed my message was left after the attack as my way of telling her I was all right. Only hours later did she compare the time of my message to the time of the attack and begin to panic.)

Although we did not know it at the time, a hijacked plane was heading directly for our office. Unable to bleed altitude, the terrorists-turned-pilots circled left and made their approach from a different direction, over the Navy Annex and toward the Navy Operations Center. Unknowingly, all of us in the VCNO's office had dodged a bullet; because of Doug Crowder's intervention, I would be dodging two.

As I hung up the phone and walked back to the VCNO's outer office, it happened. I heard the sound of an approaching airliner, increasing in volume. Then came the impact—a manmade earthquake. The halls filled immediately with dust and smoke. There was no time to think. I ran down the hall behind Lieutenant Commander Ken Inglesby and Lieutenant Kelly Ennis toward the point of impact.

The VCNO's office is on the E-ring between the 5th and 6th corridors. The plane hit between the 3rd and 4th corridors. We ran through a brown haze that I learned weeks later was a combination of vaporized aviation fuel and particulate asbestos that had been shaken loose from the ceiling. We passed through an area that recently had been abandoned for renovation and into a newly renovated, fully occupied area.

Ken was the first of us to reach the fissure—a gaping hole of sunlight where there should have been building. The floor simply had dropped out, and parts of the airplane were visible, burning not 50 feet below us. It did not take us long to figure out that everybody alive on our floor already had evacuated, and there was nothing we could do for anybody in the pit. So as we retraced our steps out of there, I pulled the alarm by the 5th corridor stairwell to begin evacuating the rest of our staff.

As we arrived back at the VCNO's office, Vice Admiral Pat Tracey, director of Navy Staff, was announcing her intention to muster our 1,000-person staff outside the building. I accompanied her, intending to assist with this task, but when we got outside I noticed nobody going toward the point of impact. So I got her permission to break off and see what needed to be done there.


Another image that still weighs on my mind is the scene of the attack, just minutes after impact. The heliport area was total devastation. Aircraft parts, most no bigger than a sheet of paper, littered the field, some still hot to the touch. The rest of the airplane lay burning inside the building. A column of black smoke bent over the top of the building toward the Potomac River. A fireman was sitting in his still-burning truck, talking on his radio. Could that radio possibly still work? It did.

Where was everybody? Thousands of people worked in that part of the building, and there should have been hundreds streaming out by that time. But the pit itself was nothing but ruin, and surrounding it were just a few responders, a very few walking wounded, and on the ground close to the point of impact, one gravely injured middle-age man. Several years ago I took a basic emergency medical technician's course, but nothing in that very limited training prepared me for this.

The injured man was burned so badly I could not tell at first whether he was white or black. Every exposed part of his body was burned, including his corneas. Amazingly, he was still conscious. A few more military men gathered, and we carried him away from the building to the edge of Route 27 where the first ambulance had just arrived.

As soon as we laid him down, I looked back toward the building and saw an open emergency exit adjacent to the site, with thick black smoke billowing out. Other officers were attending to the walking wounded scattered near the door, and someone was pouring water from a five-gallon cooler bottle onto people as they exited the building, to cool their burns and extinguish clothing fires. But I thought I saw movement from inside the building, so I went back down the hill and in the door, calling for help as I ran.

Just a few feet inside a lady was crawling toward the door. I tried to lift her, but her skin came off in my hands. Worse, the smoke was just too thick. I had no choice but to leave her and call for help. Two Army officers responded immediately. Together, the three of us half-carried, half dragged the woman from the scene. I was concerned by the fact that nearly half her body had suffered third-degree burns. But she was lucid, and a man wearing a vest that proclaimed him "Pentagon Physician" began to attend to her. (I learned later this man was a Navy dentist who by Pentagon clinic procedures was in charge of triage.)

Back at the impact site, a few officers were attending to another severely burned middle-age man. He was conscious but unable to walk, and every time the officers tried to lift him, he screamed in agony and told them to put him down. At this moment we started to hear explosions from the pit. Because we did not know at the time the sounds were oxygen bottles exploding from the airliner, we decided we had to move him immediately, agony or no agony.

After helping guide several walking wounded to the little triage area, I returned to the badly burned lady. I knelt beside her, and she said, "I can't breathe." I asked for oxygen from the second ambulance, and that seemed to help. As she began to calm down, I tried to look for signs of cyanosis, checking the inside of her lips and for fingernail capillary refill, but her burns made it difficult for me to tell whether she was getting enough oxygen.

Then she grabbed my arm and asked, "Doctor, am I going to die?"

That was a question I had never imagined having to answer. What should I say? Should I tell her I was no doctor? No answers were to be found, so I leaned over her and asked, "What's your name?"

She said, "Antoinette."

I said, "No, Antoinette, you're not going to die. We have a helicopter coming for you, and I'm going to stay with you until you're on it." She nodded, and I felt relieved.

After 15 or so agonizingly long minutes, the helicopter finally arrived. Since the Pentagon's heliport was in the middle of the attack area, it had to land up the hill, toward the Navy Annex. When we finally got Antoinette to the helicopter, I yelled over the noise, "I'll visit you in the hospital!" Then I ran back down the hill, thinking there was more work to be done at the site.

At about this time, the "Pentagon Physician" asked me to take charge of establishing a station to receive the "expectants," which meant I was in charge of caring for those who were not expected to live. Just then one of the Defense Protective Service police yelled, "Clear the area! Another plane is coming in!" So we crammed the rest of the wounded into the few ambulances present and they drove away. We moved farther from the building to wait for a second attack, which never happened. This was the first of many false alarms that day.

I tried several times during the morning to call my wife, but the cell phone circuits were jammed, and eventually I killed my battery trying to get through. Hence, it was several hours before she knew I was alive.

As the day progressed and the number of military standing by to assist reached the hundreds, I was placed in charge of about half the military on the field. An increasing number of local and federal agencies also had gathered. This plethora of competing agencies resulted in some unnecessary problems. Many of them declared themselves in charge of some aspect of the operation to the extent that frequently we received contradictory orders. When everybody is in charge, nobody is in charge.

At about noon, just as the first wave of exhaustion was hitting us, something remarkable happened. Like manna from heaven, supplies—truckloads of bottled water and sandwiches—began to arrive. The Red Cross and the Salvation Army began sending in food, tools, and equipment. With traffic snarled everywhere, I wondered how all this stuff was getting to the Pentagon.

Later that afternoon, a man who said he was from the state medical examiner's office asked how many body bags we had on hand. By that time we had been able to accumulate about a dozen or so, and he said, "That won't be enough. I've got another 2,000 on the way." Knowing how many people worked in that wing of the building, and seeing how few had come out, we were worried that 2,000 would not be enough.

Communication was a problem from the beginning. Because the field of activity was so large, and we had no radios or cell phones that worked, we resorted to 19th-century methods to pass the word from place to place. We used runners. Rank was not a factor in this assignment. I had enlisted runners, and I had colonel runners.

The day was full of vivid mental etchings. At one point, a group of firefighters was inside the building, knocking out windows to vent the heat, when they came across a Marine Corps flag. They extended it out the window to a wave of cheers.

Another time, I was going to the fissure to help an FBI agent plan his evidence walk-down. As I approached the burning core, I saw a potted flower sitting untouched amid burning embers and soot. I realized it probably had fallen from an upper floor after the fire in that area burned itself out, but it looked miraculous nonetheless.

A third image is from the time I walked across Route 27 to sit facing the building on a guardrail for a short break. Behind me, soldiers in full battle gear were lying behind the cover of trees, having established a picket line around Arlington National Cemetery, probably the first such event in this area since the Civil War. I asked one of the soldiers, "What the hell are you guarding in there?" His response was, "No idea, sir. We're from the Old Guard and were told to set up a perimeter." So I said, "Then do us a favor. Turn around and point your weapons the other way."

Later in the afternoon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld came through with a group of reporters, and I heard him say the plane had struck an unoccupied area about to undergo renovation. I knew that not to be the case—that the plane had struck our fully occupied operations center. But I decided no purpose would be served by correcting him. This does give some credence to the old adage that the first report from the scene is almost always wrong.

At about 2100, a wave of exhaustion hit me, and I decided there was nothing more I could do. I needed my wife to come for me, but I realized she would be unable to get anywhere near us. So I borrowed a cell phone and told her to start driving north on Interstate 395. I would start walking south until we met.

Not surprisingly, I had trouble sleeping that night. I kept thinking about things we might have done better, the possibility that we might have been able to save more people.


The next day I received a report that my boss, the VCNO, was working out of the Navy Annex, so I reported there. Within minutes, I was pulled aside and told, "We have a new job for you. Until we dig out of this mess, you're now the CNO's DCA [damage control assistant]."

I was inclined to ask what the job would entail—because to my knowledge the CNO had never needed a DCA before—but I headed off instead to the Pentagon to survey the damage. The tragic word already was filtering in that we had lost 42 people. So for one thing, we would have to begin to reconstitute the staff.

But a short walk through the still-burning building was enough to indicate just how much damage had been done to Navy spaces. A thick layer of black soot covered most of the Navy passageways. Asbestos dust was everywhere and would have to be cleaned up. I was in the CNO conference room when a fireman standing on a ladder truck knocked on the window and told me to get out of the room because the roof was on fire over my head.

The story has not yet been told of just how hard the Navy was hit in this attack. Despite the fact that we had to begin planning immediately for a war, we had been reduced to just 11% of our pre-attack footprint, and we had no space to reconstitute the destroyed Navy Operations Center. I needed a place where I could manage the lists, floor charts, and ventilation and electric grid diagrams required to sort out our infrastructure plan. So I set up shop in a copy machine closet—a place I called home for more than a month.

One morning, as I was walking through the north parking lot on the way to a meeting, I got a call from the VCNO's office. I thought this would be another one of those "when will the Pentagon be rebuilt?" calls, but to my surprise, it was the VCNO's secretary. She said, "I just wanted you to know how sorry I was to hear about Antoinette."

I asked, "What about Antoinette?"

She said, "She died yesterday. I thought you knew!"

I had not known. Antoinette's death had been announced the previous day, but I'd been too busy to notice.

I really had intended to keep my promise to visit her. In spare moments I researched her fate and found out she was in the Washington Hospital Center in critical but stable condition. I planned to see her that weekend. Now all that was moot.

Antoinette's death was the first event that really sent me over the edge. The news hit me like a hammer. For more than a week I'd kept my emotions under control using nothing but pure velocity. This dynamic did not allow me time to think about things. Suddenly, I found the wind sucked out of me, immersed in thoughts of friends I had lost, the horror I had witnessed. I had to duck behind a car until I could regain my composure.

A few weeks after the attack, a wall went up in the Pentagon that displayed a photograph and short bio for each victim. It was months before I had the courage to visit that wall. Since then, I don't know how many times I've looked at those pictures and relived those events. I remember Antoinette. I've come to know what she looked like in better times. I've learned a bit about her history. But I am still tormented by the fact I failed to live up to my promise.

I remember my friend, Commander Pat Dunn. Thoughtful and articulate, Pat was the least aggressive of a large gathering of Type-A personalities in several working groups we both belonged to. I remember the conversations in the halls, sharing the travails of a peacetime Navy. That seems so long ago now. I remember my friend and classmate Captain Gerry DeConto, who, for reasons I've long since forgotten, we referred to as "Fish." Gerry was a fellow physics major with whom I shared most of my classes at the Naval Academy. I had not seen him for more than 20 years, until one day about a month before the attack. We agreed to have lunch at some unspecified date—a meeting that never happened, another promise not kept.

Most of all, I remember that first man I encountered, the one so badly burned. For try as I might, I just cannot get beyond the fact that none of the faces on that wall look anything like the human being we carried away from the building that morning.

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