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Workers flee in panic, only to sit in gridlock

In Washington, news of the attacks shuts down federal buildings, empties offices and clogs roads.

By Times staff and wire reports

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 12, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Tim Timmerman was looking out a window of his 16th-floor apartment in Virginia when he saw the plane heading for the Pentagon.

"I saw the nose break up. I saw the wings fly forward," Timmerman said. "And then the conflagration just engulfed everything in flames. It was horrible."

The jetliner burst through the Pentagon's stone exterior and exploded, ripping a gaping hole that extended at least 200 feet wide into the squat, five-sided building, authorities said.

The plane hit the southwest wall that faces Arlington National Cemetery. Nearby is the building's helicopter landing area.

About 24,000 military personnel and civilians who work at the Pentagon were immediately evacuated. Most of the top-level military brass, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have offices on the other side of the building.

Much of the area was under renovation, meaning that the staffing levels were lower than usual.

Within minutes, officials responding to the attacks in New York and Washington began to evacuate much of the rest of official Washington, creating highway gridlock in the nation's capital.

Federal workers poured out of the buildings like zombies, a few rubbing red eyes. Some of them headed for parking garages, where getting a car out took as long as 40 minutes. Others flooded underground subway platforms to wait for delayed trains.

Disbelief, confusion and then gridlock were the themes of the morning in Washington as residents watched the horrifying pictures of the Pentagon and the World Trade Center before escaping the city on clogged two-lane roads.

Evacuations in the downtown area began just before 10 a.m., first at federal buildings and then at private sector offices. Fifteen people huddled outside the World Bank, cupping their ears as their boss yelled instructions for the rest of the day. Go home, they were told.

Capitol Hill was a combination of chaos and determination, as police ordered an unprecedented evacuation of the Capitol and all House and Senate office buildings. Terrified tourists poured out onto the streets, some screaming.

Police officers rushed to major intersections to direct traffic that moved an inch a minute. The mess provoked frustration and led to a few fender benders. Three blocks from the White House, a massive yellow Ryder truck crashed into the left front door of a Lexus, and a group of bike messengers standing in a park across the street whooped and hollered.

"This is absolutely crazy," said Donald M. Barnes, a lawyer at the firm of Seyfarth Shaw. "It's insanity. There was no planning, no coordination. It has created a panic situation."

Banks, bookstores, photo developing shops and other retail businesses shut their doors and posted signs that read: "Due to the federal emergency, we have closed for the day." Some lunch spots stayed open to sell drinks and sandwiches to the stranded.

"We are afraid of nothing," said Eukhtor Jadambaa, welcoming customers at his "Cup'a" deli and coffee shop. When asked why he hadn't closed his shop, the 39-year-old owner said: "Because people upstairs will be working later."

But workers did not return to their desks, and by the early afternoon, downtown was deserted.

Land phone lines never went down after the explosion at the Pentagon, but getting through on a cell phone was virtually impossible. The thousands of people hurrying along sidewalks or sitting in their cars dialed and dialed ... and dialed. They struggled to reach anyone on cellular service systems crushed by the heavy traffic.

"I haven't been able to make a call since about 9:30 this morning," said Jeff Bryce, who was driving by the Pentagon on his way to work at the Recording Industry Association of America when the airplane crashed into the compound. "Everyone has been trying to call their families and friends to tell them they are safe."

The Pentagon building has five concentric rings, and officials said the plane penetrated at least three of them.

Renovations were recently completed in the part of the Pentagon that was struck, known as "wedge one," and some employees had moved back into it. The adjacent "wedge two" was being prepared for renovation.

At the time of the crash, many of the civilian and military Pentagon workers were huddled around television sets watching reports of the apparent suicide mission just carried out at the World Trade Center towers in New York City.

Kevin Kellems, a Pentagon public affairs officer who was formerly press secretary for Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, said he heard people screaming to get out.

"I took 20 paces away from the building, then turned around and saw this enormous black plume," he said. "At that moment, you realize it's very serious."

- Times staff writers John Balz and Sara Fritz contributed to this report, which used information from Times wires.

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