by Father John Quinn, S.J.

Wednesday, September 12, 2001- I was numb all day yesterday, and just couldn't believe what had happened -- or how close we were to at least part of it! In addition to serving three combat tours in Vietnam as an Airborne Ranger Infantry officer, my father spent three years working in the Pentagon during the Vietnam War. It has always been an important symbol from my years in the U.S. Marine Corps. Although more directly connected with the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, MD while I served in the USMC, the Pentagon was always considered the symbol of the heart of soul of America's fighting men and women around the globe. I used to go to the Pentagon with my Dad on Saturday mornings when he needed to work on the weekend. I NEVER thought I would live to see the day it so badly damaged, with so much loss of life...

I prayed last night for guidance on what to do, and the answer came back - get your butt to the Pentagon long before first light - maybe you can get in before the world wakes up. I said Mass late last night, consecrated a bunch of hosts, packed up my pastoral care for the sick kit, and biked across the river. I arrived in dawn's early light, before the crowds (later in the day there would be THOUSANDS of people there).

I checked in at the Chaplains' tent, and a Navy chaplain was trying to put together a four-man team - two enlisted Religious Personnel and two chaplains. Most of the Navy guys had just come out of the carnage, and were ready to pack it in. I volunteered and an old-timer Army Catholic Chaplain (full colonel) asked me who I was. I told him, and they still let me in! Turns out the priest knew one of the greatest Army chaplains I ever met (Msgr. John McCollough (current NYC Police Dept. Chaplain).

WOW! Getting into the courtyard in the exact center of the Pentagon was something! We had to pass through some incredible carnage - no bodies, but wreckage beyond my comprehension. They were still trying to the quench the flames -- nearly 21 hours after the plane-bomb devastated the outer ring and severely damaged the next two rings.

The folks we talked to were Red Cross, EMTs, and lots of firefighters. The other chaplain and his Chief Petty Officer were high energy, salt of the earth types who spoke easily with the people on the scene. The roman collar, however, worked even better -- since all of the people on the innermost courtyard were non-military. I was distributing Communion and hearing confessions before I even knew what I was doing, and the camaraderie with the Chaplain Corps was instantaneous.

Two and a half hours later, I was REALLY disappointed when they came back in for us, and said that we all had to go back out, check in at the Chaplains' tent where the Army was slated to take the next shift. They didn't send any more teams into the innermost sections of the buildings, and everyone was then on the outer perimeter.

I was standing IN the gaping hole in the building, offered some prayers for the dead, and also some for their families who still weren't certain who had perished in the blast. The way I got to get so close was a USMC officer working for the Red Cross escorted a Marine corporal and I to a sight, "...we just had to see to believe!"

It was true - I couldn't believe it! Up on the fourth floor, just to the left of the gaping hole (and visible ONLY from right up at the building, looking inward - were the MARINE CORPS colors still flying in an office which was only three feet from the point of impact. It was so AWESOME - we just slapped one another on the back, shook h
ands, and yelled SEMPER Fi!

We made three more trips up there to the front of the building to bring a videographer, a USMC colonel, and the officer photographer from Combat Photography magazine. Each trip was so great - the adrenaline was definitely pumping through our veins.

Early on, I made the very conscious decision NOT to bring a camera to the site - I didn't want any confusion as to why I was there. I went as a Jesuit priest, and not as a photojournalist. SMART move on my part - I would have at least lost my film, and probably been kicked out if I had tried to take any photos! There were BIG bruisers with guns and dogs making sure that no unauthorized pictures were taken. I saw them rip the film out of a firefighter's camera and storm off with the unwound film blowing in the breeze.

I spent the whole afternoon "hanging out" with the Army chaplains and walking through the various work areas. It was really gratifying to have rescue workers, volunteers, EMTs, and firefighters come up to me and tell me how much they appreciated me being there for them. Some asked for blessings, the chance to go to Confession, and when I told them I brought Communion with me, they were INCREDIBLY grateful.

What did I see...besides the wreckage and devastation?

I saw an incredible outpouring of generosity and human kindness on the part of the Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers who prepared fabulous meals for EVERYONE in sight. They also distributed ice cold water, juice, and soda to those laboring in the hot sun. And I saw the looks on rescue workers' faces when they received these FREE thirst quenchers.

I saw the super professionalism of the FBI, NTSB, ATF, City, County and State police as they made sure that everything moved smoothly and that everyone was "on the same page." They made us feel safe and secure amidst the overwhelming physical evidence to the contrary. The construction workers, heavy equipment operators, and engineers also exemplified professionalism and wholehearted dedication to securing the very not-secure structural situation.

I saw up close and personal the eyes of the firefighters who volunteered to come to the Pentagon from all over Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. Their faces were worn and haggard, but their eyes, their bright shining eyes said, "We're here and we're NOT leavin' til the job gets done!" Working shoulder to shoulder with the firefighters were the world renowned, world class Fairfax County Search & Rescue Team members. On the radio I heard, "They've gone around the world to help others; today they only had to go around the corner to help neighbors, friends and family right here at home." Their faces told the story of pure grit and determination, speaking through actions more than words that they would be the "first in - last out."

I saw two groups which really jumped out and grabbed my attention. The first was the Army HAZMAT team - standing tall and proud, knowing full well that the very next sights they would witness would sicken them and bring them to their knees. They knew they couldn't "handle" seeing dead bodies and mutilated body parts, but they suited up like something out of a sci-fi movie and marched into harm's way just same. In them, I witnessed pride and courage unparalleled.

In addition, I saw in The Old Guard an amazingly contradictory image. On April 28, 2001 I presided at the burial ceremony in Arlington National Cemetery for a World War II/Korean War U.S. Army veteran. Fort Meyer's 3rd Regiment, The Old Guard provided the honor guard, and they were IMPRESSIVE! They were dressed impeccably in their dress blue uniforms, marched crisply, and looked sharp - they are real pros! On September 12, 2001 I saw The Old Guard again - this time doing the backbreaking work of filling sandbags and digging ditches. Up to their knees in mud, drenched in sweat, and laboring in the heat of the day, I still recognized them because of their eyes and their faces. They swung a shovel with as much pride and military bearing as they used folding the funeral flag or giving a 21-gun salute.

The millions of gallons of water pumped at the still burning Pentagon cascaded down the building's walls, threatening to flood the perimeter and hamper the traffic flow of incoming cranes and heavy equipment. The young men of The Old Guard turned the most menial of labor into a full-scale military operation. They made it possible for the rescue attempts to move forward, and their faces told the story better than any words could describe. They marched back to their tents just as tall and proud as the replacement platoon they passed along the way. Many collapsed in exhaustion, but they would be ready once again in a matter of hours.

Finally, I saw the Chaplain Corps at its best. Deployed in a three-prong effort to meet the spiritual needs of the military personnel on duty, the civilian rescue workers/volunteers, and the families of the wounded/missing/dead, they geared up for the long haul. They had been assembled from up and down the east coast, many called in from leave, or were reservists put on active duty. They were men and women who had the look of having "been there and done that" -- chaplains from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War. They were men and women who knew firsthand the trauma to the psyche and soul caused by battle, war, and accompanying loss of human life. Many had gained experience in Oklahoma City and the first bombing of the World Trade Center. Sunburned and deeply wrinkled faces also contained compassionate eyes, a ready smile, and a friendly glance for all with whom they came in contact.

Most of the families of the missing were across the highway in the Sheraton Hotel where Family Services attempted to bring comfort and consolation. One woman, the Command Sgt. Major at Fort Belvoir, VA chose to wait in the Chaplains' tent - as she waited to hear the unbearable news that her Command Sgt. Major husband perished in the blast of the terrorist plane-bomb at the Pentagon. Somehow, she knew that being in the chapel-tent with the Chaplain Corps was the place to be.

The big hoopla during the day was when the alarm sounded, and EVERYONE was hurried off the roof, and EVERYONE was rushed across the street and up the little hill across from the Pentagon. An identified plane was heading right for the Pentagon, flying VERY low!

It was the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) taking pictures! I'll bet someone's butt is in a sling for that one. They SCRAMBLED thousands of people away from the building in no time -- just because someone "needed" to be in secure air space - through a no-fly zone, without letting the people on the ground know what was happening.

I pretty much hit the wall about 4:00 p.m., said my good-byes, told them I'd be back if I could, and headed back across the Potomac River, from Virginia into Washington, D.C. The adrenaline was gone, and it was a LONG hot ride home. Only then did it hit me how much smoke I had inhaled during the course of the day. My lungs were burning, and my clothes smelled terrible.

It was, however, so worth it! I couldn't do much in the grand scheme of things, but I did what I could. That's all I could hope for in the middle of this incredible and still unbelievable tragedy.

© 2001 Father John Quinn, S.J.

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