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Amid grim work, the Pentagon stirs

Workers return as fires are extinguished, and President Bush visits. But it's hardly business as usual.

©New York Times

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 13, 2001

ARLINGTON, Va. -- As hundreds of firefighters fought tenacious fires through the Pentagon's slate roof, military and civilian personnel returned to a building where the principal business Wednesday was drawing up plans to retaliate.

Two-fifths of the Pentagon, the largest federal office building, was shut, with thousands of workers told to stay home and most routine work all but halted.

Officials sought to portray a scene of business as usual, but the most feverish activity -- besides firefighting -- occurred in the building's operations and command centers.

Many of the Pentagon's long, polished corridors, normally bustling with service members, generals and admirals, remained dark Wednesday, sealed off with yellow police tape and guarded by soldiers in camouflage carrying automatic weapons. Even in those hallways that were open, soot settled like dust.

A burning, pungent smell of noxious smoke filled the building's 17.5 miles of corridors.

Even before the fires were finally extinguished Wednesday evening, Pentagon officials had begun the wrenching process of identifying those who were killed when American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the western side of the building at 9:45 a.m. on Tuesday.

Late Wednesday, officials from the military services said about 150 people were missing in the attack on the Pentagon. There had been estimates of 800 dead, but that was discounted by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Many of the casualties are expected to be from the Navy and Army, which used most of the offices in the section hit by the plane.

Hospitals reported that at least 94 people, some of them in critical condition, were treated in the hours after the attack.

The Pentagon opened a center at a hotel nearby for relatives and friends of those missing.

Elza Chapa, 32, came in desperate search of her mother, Rosemary, who worked in the budget office of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Military officials assured her that search and rescue teams were standing by the Pentagon wreckage, eager to start work, but through the day, smoke and fire stoked by jet fuel pooled at the epicenter of the wreckage hampered rescue efforts.

"They keep saying the rescue teams are ready to go, because we wanted to go in there and start digging ourselves," Chapa said.

Arlington County, Va., Fire Marshal Shawn Kelley said searchers know "the general area within the building where they can find the black box," but couldn't get there because it still was unstable.

A Pentagon statement described "catastrophic damage" in the area around the impact and said "anyone who survived the initial impact could not have survived the fire that followed."

Still, a small American flag planted on the roof spoke to the Pentagon's determination to restore its spirit.

The little flag was replaced late in the day by a huge one. A dozen firefighters held the banner aloft on the roof, in a display timed to coincide with a visit from President Bush. Then they draped it near the stricken section, a bold display of red, white and blue hanging two-thirds of the way down the wall.

"Coming here makes me sad on one hand," Bush told military and civilian employees. "It also makes me angry. Our country will, however, not be cowed by terrorists."

-- Information from the Associated Press, Cox News Service and Hearst Newspapers was used in this report.

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