9/11 Eleventh Anniversary: 11 Days of Remembrance. Day 5: Ground Zero at the Pentagon

By William Henderson, Head of Law Enforcement Section

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Villainy and tragedy are often the first impressions that come to mind when we think of September 11, 2001. In fact, though, it was also a day for heroism and extraordinary devotion to duty. Most of the heroes are well-known. In New York, the New York City Fire Department reacted quickly and bravely, and lost many of its own that day. In the air over Pennsylvania, a small group of passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 stood up to the murderers who had taken over their plane. And in Washington, it was the Arlington County Fire Department that went into action within minutes of the jetliner slamming into the Pentagon.

For reasons still not clear to me, however, there is an important group of men and women who received very little notice in the weeks that followed those terrible events. The Pentagon Force Protection Agency, known at that time as the Defense Protective Service (DPS), is the police force responsible for providing security and law enforcement services at the Pentagon. Seconds after American Airlines Flight 77 flew into the side of the building, dozens of DPS police officers ran to the scene.

I was in my office at the Pentagon that morning. My responsibilities as a Defense Department civilian lawyer included providing legal counsel to DPS, so I knew exactly what they wanted Pentagon employees to do when there was an emergency – get out of the building and stay out of their way. I also knew what they would be doing – heading directly toward the danger.

In the days that followed, many of the police officers told me their stories. One officer couldn’t stop thinking about the woman who ran toward him with the skin melting from her arms. Other officers entered a destroyed conference room where charred bodies remained in the chairs around the table. Still others had rashes and blisters on their legs after wading through a mixture of water, jet fuel, and other substances as they searched the ruins for survivors.

Although the strain was clear on the face of every officer, they had no time to catch their breath. Security experts were concerned that those responsible for the attacks had planned follow-up attacks close in time to the first wave. DPS remained on the front lines of the Pentagon’s security plan. At the same time, the efforts to put out the fires and then to try to recover the thousands of fragments of the human bodies that had been destroyed lasted for weeks, and DPS also played the central role in controlling access to the site.

Pentagon after being struck by a plane on September 11, 2001

It’s of course important to note that others working in the Pentagon also did their part. On September 12, for example, despite the building still being on fire and two evacuations based on reports of temporarily unidentified aircraft in the vicinity, hundreds of dedicated public servants were back in their offices. And among those, dozens lined up to give blood at a Red Cross station set up inside the building.

I try to fill my memories of that terrible period in our Nation’s history with thoughts of all of the heroes of New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington. But when I think of the earliest moments of that day at the Pentagon, I think especially of the courage and professionalism of the men and women of the Defense Protective Service.

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