by Sgt. Nate Orme
Four weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, the gaping wound left in the south side of the Pentagon appears cleaned and sterilized.
Gone are the teams of rescue and recovery personnel wearing breathing masks and bio-suits while sorting through the grim evidence of an unspeakable crime that left 189 dead. Gone are the broken pieces of concrete, the twisted metal, the charred furniture. Gone, too, are the Army engineers who constructed dozens of wooden box cribs to shore up the busted and damaged columns that hold up the floors of the five-story edifice.
The FBI has turned over the Pentagon to the military and the area is officially no longer a working FBI crime scene. But for America, it will always be the scene of a crime a moment that will forever survive in our national consciousness, as do other attacks that now live on in infamy. Yes, we will surely remember the Pentagon and related World Trade Center attacks, just as we do the Alamo.
"The American people have been well represented here," said Maj. Gen. James T. Jackson, commander of the U.S. Army Military District of Washington, at the Pentagon hand-off ceremony. "Tragedy has a way of bringing out the best in Americans. With great professionalism, many people and agencies came together to do a job that has never been done before..."
Inside the undamaged majority of the Pentagon, soldiers, Marines, airmen, sailors and civilians continue serving as before the attack. One could hardly guess the calamity that had transpired here from viewing the seemingly normal operations in this massive complex. But one cannot see the knots of anger spawned by this bizarre and unfathomable attack.
Standing directly outside the impact area, the gap looks rather small in relation to the wide sides of the edifice. The collapsed floors have been removed, and the evidence of violence has been extricated. From a distance, it looks merely like a demolition zone. Only viewing up close begins to tell the full impact of the story now.
Walking into the building using the entrance created by the Boeing 757, telltale signs of a strange occurrence become apparent. Plumbing pipes hang from the ceiling, broken and shattered like a plastic cup. Wires upon wires drape down from the ceiling haphazardly, without direction. The walls deep within the building, away from the area of direct impact, are blackened and charred, evidence of the fire that raged on, fed by the fuel-laden aircraft.
Damp books, some singed around the edges, lie in a pile, gathered and placed by rescuers. Also salvaged, a two-foot-diameter cast-iron shield representing the Army Reserve is blackened by fire but hardly the worse for wear. Perhaps one day it will be placed as is, thoughtfully and appropriately, with a plaque of remembrance. For now, it leans silently against an unlit wall.
Eerily and thankfully, the destruction suddenly stops, and offices nearly untouched but for water damage adjoin offices almost completely destroyed. A desk remains in one, and on it an intact bowl of blackened fruit.
On the inside wall of the second ring of the Pentagon, a nearly circular hole, about 12-feet wide, allows light to pour into the building from an internal service alley. An aircraft engine punched the hole out on its last flight after being broken loose from its moorings on the plane. The result became a huge vent for the subsequent explosion and fire. Signs of fire and black smoke now ring the outside of the jagged-edged hole.
There have been hundreds of truckloads of material carted from the site - amounting to approximately 10,000 tons of debris, said FBI agent John S. Adams, team leader for the evidence recovery team, part of the FBI's Washington field office.
The recovery work continued for a time in the North Parking Lot, where various agencies, such as the 311th Mortuary Affairs Quartermaster Company, an Army Reserve unit called up from Puerto Rico, did the critical work of collecting personal effects and combing for evidence on the attackers. Now they, too, are gone.
The Pentagon is ready to be rebuilt. A new $145 million contract has already been granted to Hensel Phelps Construction Co. of Chantilly, Va.
For many, viewing the Pentagon now is an attempt to bring some type of understanding, if not healing. But it still does not begin to answer the question of why.
Was it insanity? Are these inherently evil minds? Or were those who destroyed their own spark of life and divinity through their act themselves victims of a twisted indoctrination by freedom's enemies?
"We are not deceived by their pretenses to piety," President Bush said. "We have seen their kind before. They are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century . . . they follow in the path of fascism, and Nazism, and totalitarianism," Bush declared.
May the murderous idealogy of terrorism be defeated and be forgotten, and rest "in history's unmarked grave of discarded lies," as our president said in his address to Congress and the American people.
And may our dead always, always be remembered and honored. God bless America!
(Editor's note: Sgt. Nate Orme, an Army Reserve soldier with the 214th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, spent two weeks at the Pentagon crash site reporting on soldier recovery work.)