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Pentagon Recovery

September 12, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: For that assessment, we’re joined by George Wilson, military columnist for the National Journal, and former Pentagon reporter for the Washington Post. George, have you been over to the Pentagon in the last day and seen what it’s like there?

GEORGE WILSON: Yes. I was there this morning, and it was still smoking. And the scene was very somber, very sad. There was a lone American flag flying on the roof where the west side of the building had been devastated by that airliner. The whole face was charred and a big gap was in the building, and there were cranes there ready to put engineers on the roof so they could assess where the damage occurred and what the structural problems were. And there were tents outside in the parking lot to tend to the stricken and also to give some meals to the construction workers.

GWEN IFILL: You mention that it’s still smoking. Our offices are not so very far from the Pentagon, and we can step outside and still smell the smoke. Why are the fires still burning, if that’s what’s happening?

GEORGE WILSON: Well, as of late this morning, it was smoking, and one of the policemen who said, “you can’t go in there now because the fires have just restarted.” It’s kind of a honeycomb structure and it has various cells all along these corridors. So I suspect that there’s little scattered fires that you just can’t attack as one solid mass. But I have to add that late this afternoon when I went by, there was no more smoke coming out and the fire was indeed finally out.

GWEN IFILL: So when you talk about the honeycomb structure, when we think about the Pentagon, we know it’s five-sided, but unless you fly over it– like a lot of people do, landing in Washington– there are five hallways, corridors that go around in kind of a…

GEORGE WILSON: Right. There’s concentric corridors, just figure like a set of donuts, each one smaller than the one behind it. And so a fireman would have to weave his way through these corridors into these various separated hallways, and it would be a slow-moving process. And besides that, a good many of the doors in the Pentagon have combination locks on them. So a fireman couldn’t just bang open a door and go in there with a foam or hose. He’d have to either knock down the door or know the combination, and I suspect there was a lot of fire axes at work.

GWEN IFILL: So where did this plane actually impact?

GEORGE WILSON: It impacted in the west face of the Pentagon, which is where the helicopters that take the generals and executives of the Pentagon in and out. And it hit at the lower level, so that all five stories were smashed. And, of course, the big damage was done by the fuel. It was, in effect, a very effective bomb and it hit smack into the face, and it took some pretty good flying to be that precise.

GWEN IFILL: Who works in that area of the Pentagon?

GEORGE WILSON: It’s mostly Army people. That’s an Army side of the Pentagon. But the good news is that because much of that face of the building was under renovation, some of it had already been renovated, and it had glass which was plasticized, so that it didn’t shatter and scatter and hurt people, and also because there were renovations ongoing, several of the offices were unoccupied. So the casualties were less than they would have been if they’d hit, say, another face of the building.

GWEN IFILL: Was there any sign of the plane that hit the building left in the wreckage that you could see?

GEORGE WILSON: I could not see it, which amazed me because I thought that big a plane, I could spot some pieces of the wreckage. But I suspect it’s buried in the rubble, or, from that distance that they let you go to, which is on the perimeter, maybe it wasn’t visible. But it was surprising that there was a hole there, as opposed to a splattering of parts on the concrete face of the building.

GWEN IFILL: Now we can only assume that the Pentagon still remains ground zero for whatever retaliatory response the U.S. is planning. You’ve been doing some reporting on that; what have you heard?

GEORGE WILSON: Well, that it’s not going to be just a single strike — that this is going to be a long war– and they’re using the term “war,” if you notice, more and more. And it’s kind of the “who, what, when and where,” and as soon as that is determined, there will be strikes. And eventually, given the President’s words and the military planners’ words, if you’re harboring a terrorist, a known terrorist, and you will not give him up to us, there is certainly a lot of sentiment for inflicting some real hurt on that country.

GWEN IFILL: The folks you’ve talked to who work at the Pentagon, have they gotten over the shock of this?

GEORGE WILSON: No. It’s a very… People go back and forth to work, but it’s a very sober kind of movement. It’s almost like they’re a little bit shell-shocked, and understandably so. One Air Force officer told me this morning that he was on the entire other side of the building, but the impact was such that it shook the whole building. He couldn’t believe that a structure that solid and that built like a fortress could be shaken by such an attack.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you, George Wilson.

GEORGE WILSON: You’re welcome.