‘Just like Korea is the forgotten war, the Pentagon is the forgotten 9/11’

  • A visitor spends contemplative moment in 2011 at the Pentagon Memorial, built in honor of those who died on Sept. 11, 2001. Washington Post

Washington Post
Published: 9/5/2016 8:58:47 PM

When we remember Sept. 11, 2001, we can’t help but think in haunting visuals: a jet bursting into a fireball as it impales a skyscraper; office workers falling from the tallest windows of the towers; New Yorkers so covered in dust they look like statues.

The images of what happened at the Pentagon never left the same imprint. There’s no footage of American Airlines Flight 77 crashing into the western side of the behemoth office complex. The Pentagon is 6.5 million square feet spread horizontally, so even the explosion of an airplane looked almost minor compared to the wreckage in the Financial District.

Maybe that’s why documentarians haven’t examined the events in Arlington, Va., the same way they’ve parsed what happened in New York or on United Flight 93. But Emmy-nominated filmmaker Kirk Wolfinger wanted to. When a television network that shall remain nameless approached him about making a 9/11 documentary, he pitched a story about the attack on the Pentagon. The response was unequivocal: If he wanted to make the movie, it had to be about the World Trade Center.

“This is certainly not a competition for who had the greatest tragedy,” Wolfinger said over the phone recently. The death toll in New York was obviously higher than the 184 killed in Arlington. And yet, there were stories worth revisiting from the Pentagon that day. If he wasn’t going to tell them, who would?

Wolfinger’s take on the tragic day eventually found a home. His one-hour special, 9/11 Inside the Pentagon, executive produced by Wolfinger and directed by Sharon Petzold, premieres on PBS Tuesday night.

Wolfinger can understand why some filmmakers might shy away from the Pentagon story. A documentarian’s work relies on access, and the U.S. military may not seem like an easy culture to penetrate. Even so, he was surprised to hear that he was the first filmmaker to present a credible request for the Pentagon’s assistance on such a project – “and by that I mean one that didn’t deal with conspiracy theories,” he said.

“They placed no restrictions on me,” he said. “They just said, ‘please tell our story, because nobody has told it.’ ”

The movie features interviews with military personnel who were near the crash, first responders, the building’s assistant operations manager and its structural engineer. Stories of what happened on the ground are interspersed with accounts of what happened in the sky, thanks to the memories of an FAA air traffic controller.

The tales are harrowing: people crawling through rooms pitch-black with smoke; workers trying to break through shatter-proof windows that had just been installed during a recent renovation; staircases so hot they burned people’s feet through their shoes.

The question remains: Is the American public interested in what happened at the Pentagon on 9/11?

Retired Navy submarine captain Bill Toti, who survived the Pentagon attack and is featured in the movie, says he can understand why many people focus on New York. But “just like Korea is the forgotten war, the Pentagon is the forgotten 9/11.”

He offered up a couple of theories why during a phone conversation last week. The first is the one he’d prefer to believe:

New York happened on live TV while the world watched, and it was visually shocking in ways the Pentagon wasn’t. The Pentagon, though it housed as many people as the World Trade Center, proved to be a less vulnerable building; many more people walked away from the Pentagon than did from the Twin Towers.

He has another theory, too, though it leaves him less comfortable:

“I’ve had some indication that there are people in the country who think: At the Pentagon, they’re military, so it’s kind of their job to die,” he said. “Although nobody has ever said that to me straight-out, I do sometimes think that the loss of life of a civilian who’s not a combatant is more profound than somebody who is a combatant.”

And yet, ironically, most of the people who were killed at the Pentagon were civilians. That was one of the big surprises for Wolfinger. This wasn’t a military story at all. About 20,000 people work at the Pentagon, and a lot of them aren’t in uniform.

“There are civilian secretaries and administrators and building superintendents, private contractors doing electrical and plumbing,” Wolfinger said. “All those people were in the building that day and they are part of our story.”

One of the non-military voices in the film is Ed Hannon, then the Arlington County fire department captain. In one of the movie’s most powerful moments, Hannon describes kneeling in prayer along with many others in a courtyard in the center of the Pentagon. The FAA had alerted those on the ground that another airplane was within minutes of delivering a second assault. There was no way to make it out of the serpentine facility fast enough, Hannon knew, so he prepared to die as the sound of a jet engine grew louder and louder.

“Then, almost instantaneously, all these military guys are starting to cheer,” Hannon recalled. What they were hearing was a friendly fighter plane that dipped its wing as it passed overhead. “Then all we had was a fire to fight,” he said.

This was Toti’s story: On the evening of Sept. 10, he had stuck a letter in his boss’s mailbox announcing that he’d decided to retire. The next morning, he escaped the crash vicinity unscathed, and spent the day carrying the wounded to ambulances and helicopters. He was easy for Wolfinger to spot in old news footage; he seemed to be everywhere.

The Navy ended up designating him its lead for the recovery effort. One of the first things he did when he returned on Sept. 12 was retrieve the letter and tear it up.

That same day, the Naval Historical Center begged him to use his access to rescue some paintings from the wreckage. While collecting a piece from a conference room, he heard a knock on the window. It was a firefighter warning that the ceiling above him was still on fire.

He has a lot of other stories, too. So does everyone else that was there. Tragic tales and heroic ones. Stories you wouldn’t believe. If only someone would ask.

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