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Plane crashes into Pentagon

Troops deployed in response to apparent terrorist attack

©Associated Press


WASHINGTON - The Pentagon took a direct, devastating hit from an aircraft and the enduring symbols of American power were evacuated today as an apparent terrorist attack quickly spread fear and chaos in the nation's capital.

President Bush ordered the nation's military to "high-alert status," and vowed to "hunt down and punish those responsible" for parallel attacks in Washington and New York, where the World Trade Center collapsed into rubble with a heavy loss of life.

The president, in Florida at the time of the attacks, was flown at midday to the security of Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, then later to the U.S. Strategic Air Command headquarters in Nebraska. Aides said he would convene a National Security Council meeting by teleconference from there, and described him as looking forward to returning to Washington.

The top leaders of Congress were led to the safety of an undisclosed location, guards armed with automatic weapons patrolled the White House grounds and military aircraft secured the skies above the capital city.

Within hours, long lines of blood donors queued up outside an area hospital. And Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the city's Catholic leader, said an unusually large number of worshippers -- between 3,000 and 4,000 attended Mass at the downtown cathedral as the enormity of the destruction began to sink in.

The nerve center of the nation's military burst into flames and a portion of one side of the five-sided structure collapsed when a plane -- reported hijacked and carrying a number of passengers -- struck in midmorning. Secondary explosions were reported in the aftermath of the attack and great billows of smoke drifted skyward toward the Potomac River and the city beyond.

"The fire was intense," Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, the Pentagon spokesman, told reporters in a makeshift briefing at a gasoline station across the street from the building. At midday, local hospitals reported receiving 40 victims of the attack, with seven patients in critical condition admitted to one facility for treatment of burns.

"The whole building shook" with the impact, said Terry Yonkers, an Air Force civilian employee at work inside the Pentagon at the time of the attack. "There was screaming and pandemonium," he said, but the evacuation ordered shortly afterward was carried out smoothly.

Law enforcement officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the plane that struck the Pentagon was an American Airlines jetliner that had taken off from Dulles International Airport on a scheduled flight to Los Angeles.

Officials said one of the passengers was Barbara Olson, the wife of Solicitor General Theodore Olson, who argues President Bush's cases before the Supreme Court.

Vice President Dick Cheney was in Washington, and conferred with Bush by telephone from a secure part of the White House, according to presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer. He added that First Lady Laura Bush and that her and the president's twin daughters also were safe.

Bush was described by aides as eager to return to Washington. Armed personnel secured the runway at Barksdale Air Force Base when Bush's plane touched down there. During the day, aides said Bush spoke with New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, New York Gov. George Pataki as well as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

"The leadership of the Defense Department is OK. The secretary is OK," Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood told reporters.

Authorities immediately began deploying troops, including a regiment of light infantry, in response to an attack for which they said there had been no advance warning.

The departments of Justice, State, Treasury and Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency were evacuated -- an estimated 20,000 at the Pentagon alone. Agents with automatic weapons patrolled the White House grounds.

And the FAA ordered the entire nationwide air traffic system shut down for the first time in history.

Officials said two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center, and a third into the Pentagon. A fourth plane crashed 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, and one lawmaker, Rep. James Moran, D-Va., said after a Marine Corps briefing that "it was apparently intended to Camp David," the presidential retreat in the mountains of Maryland.

Bush and others spoke freely about terrorism being the cause, and already there was speculation about those responsible.

One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were unspecified indications that Osama bin Laden's organization was responsible.

But finally assessing responsibility was likely months if not years down the road, and in the meantime, there was no attempt to minimize the impact.

The military was ordered to "Threat Level Delta," the highest level, at least in the Washington area, according to Air Force Capt. Tatiana Stead at Andrews Air Force Base.

"This is the second Pearl Harbor. I don't think that I overstate it," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., referring to the attack 60 years ago that surprised the nation's intelligence apparatus and propelled the country into World War II.

"In my view, this has been an intelligence failure," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., adding that the Senate Intelligence Committee had no indication the attacks were coming.

With Bush away from the capital, his advisers were preparing a list of options, including closing the nation's borders, according to a senior U.S. official.

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was premature to discuss military options because investigators were still trying to determine who was responsible for the attacks.

Away from the Pentagon, unexplained explosions were reported in the vicinity of the State Department and the Capitol. They apparently were no more than sonic booms.

A torrent of people rushed from their office buildings throughout the nation's capital, eager to leave a city under siege. The cell phone networks were overloaded, clusters of people sprayed on the sidewalks and at least one suburban school district announced plans to close early.

The Pentagon was hit a short while after the World Trade Center was struck. a plane, described by witnesses as a jetliner, made impact in the portion of the building on side opposite from where Rumsfeld's office are located.

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