Fifteen years ago we used the words "indelible" and "unforgettable." They were the right words, of course: No one will ever forget what happened on Sept. 11, 2001.
We can still picture the moment the second plane hit, the moment the first tower crumbled into the smoke and debris, and then holding our breath, telling ourselves the other tower would hold, but suspecting -- terrified -- it wouldn't.
As indelible and unforgettable as that singular day in American and human history was, a new PBS documentary about the attack on the Pentagon reignites the visceral horror and raw, sustained grief we felt on the day itself. "9/11 Inside the Pentagon," airing Tuesday, Sept. 6, on PBS, takes viewers not only back to that day, but, as the title suggests, directly inside the building where 184 people lost their lives.
Executive producer Kirk Wolfanger has secured firsthand recollections of the day from a variety of people: Steve Carter, the assistant building manager of the Pentagon; retired Army Col. Marilyn Wills, who wears a Purple Heart on her dress; first responders Mike Regan, Alan Wallace and Ed Hannon; retired Navy Capt. William J. Toti; air traffic controller Colin Scoggins; structural engineer Leo Titus; and Washington Post reporter and author Steve Vogel.
Wills fights back tears as she details what seemed like just another day at the office until the building was rocked by an explosion and fire after American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into its side and penetrated three of its architectural rings before coming to a stop.
The attacks on the World Trade Center came out of nowhere, but because those attacks happened first, there was reason to think that attacks on federal buildings in Washington could be coming.
Wallace recalls the Pentagon fire chief suggesting that the building could be a target, because it was so large and out in the open.
Vogel tells us that when the Pentagon was built, some criticized its massive size and called it "the world's largest bombing target."
The building contains 17 miles of corridors under a 34-acre roof, and more than 20,000 people go to work there every day -- far more than the number of people who work either at the White House or the U.S. Capitol.
Flight 77 had departed from Dulles International for Los Angeles that morning, but suddenly went dark -- someone had turned off the plane's transponder as it turned around over Indiana and headed back to Washington.
"This is no navigation malfunction," Toti recalls thinking. "We knew that this was intentional from the beginning."
"Suddenly you hear a sound," he says later. "It keeps getting louder and louder and you say, is this happening?"
The impact was thunderous, sending a towering plume of black smoke into the cloudless blue sky, while jet fuel flooded the destroyed offices in and adjacent to the airliner's trajectory through the building.
That section of the building erupted in flames, smoke, chaos and darkness, the remnants of corridors filled with choking dust from pulverized drywall.
People like Wills tried to find ways out, but it was nearly impossible. The dust was so thick that she dipped her sweater in liquid she thought to be water just to keep some of the dust out of her lungs. It was jet fuel.
Those who managed to escape wanted to go back in to help others, but the first responders said it was too dangerous. The lucky ones drew diagrams of the building's interior to aid the fire and rescue crews.
At one point, Carter looked up and saw a group of people pounding futilely at a window that would not break or budge: As a security effort, the building had been refitted with blast-resistant windows, which were now imprisoning and perhaps dooming survivors left inside.
Amid all the chaos, a second plane was spotted approaching the building in the distance. No one had any reason to believe it was anything other than a second suicide attack. The highest-level alert was issued for people to evacuate the building and to get 500 yards away as the plane neared, growing from a pinprick in the sky. In what must have seemed like hours, the plane came close enough for everyone to realize it was an American military jet fighter, on hand to protect the building from further attack.
Even after 15 years, the accounts of what went on in the minutes and hours after the attack are raw, terrifyingly detailed and deeply emotional. We feel the panic, the profound despair and unrelenting sadness of everyone who survived.
Hannon, injured in the rescue operation, had to go back to the building after he was released from the hospital because of the enduring emotional pain and guilt he felt at not being able to rescue more people. He thought seeing it again might help.
The documentary is graced by stories of heroism and humanity in the face of hell on Earth. The day before, Toti had written a letter requesting retirement and had left it in his superior's inbox. On his way out of the building the next day, he grabbed it and tore it up.
In spite of what appeared to be a mortal wound, the Pentagon continued to function throughout that day as it had every day before and since. Carter and others made sure the building's water, electricity and other vital systems continued to work through it all.
"The Pentagon was bruised, but it wasn't broken," he says.
In the coming days, we will see again those images of the crumbling towers and the tornado of smoke rising from the side of the Pentagon. The inside stories of people who were at the Pentagon that day offer further insight into why that day is and always should be unforgettable.
David Wiegand is an assistant managing editor and the TV critic of The San Francisco Chronicle. Follow me on Facebook. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV
9/11 Inside the Pentagon: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 6, on PBS. ___
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