WASHINGTON -- The nation's capital came under deadly terrorist assault yesterday morning when a hijacked jetliner flew full-throttle into the Pentagon, the storied seat of U.S. military power. Scores were killed and dozens injured.
The crash, part of a coordinated terrorist attack on the United States, took place less than an hour after two other hijacked commercial jets tore into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, with devastating results. A fourth jet, which also may have been targeted at Washington, crashed in southwestern Pennsylvania as it headed toward the capital.
President Bush was out of town at the time of the attack. He learned of the initial strikes, on New York, while visiting an elementary school in Sarasota, Fla.
After delivering a brief statement condemning the assault, Bush was flown to air force bases in Louisiana and Nebraska as a security precaution.
He arrived back at the White House last night and addressed the nation from the Oval Office.
"None of us will ever forget this day," Bush said, vowing to bring the terrorists and those who harbor them to justice for yesterday's "mass murder."
Authorities did not release a casualty count, but the attack on the Pentagon was the deadliest in the Washington area since the Civil War.
Airline officials said 64 passengers and crew were aboard when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed at high speed into the building's limestone façade about 9:40 a.m.
None aboard survived, said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Among the victims was Barbara Olson, conservative Republican commentator and wife of U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson, who received two cell-phone calls from her as the hijacking was in progress.
Rumsfeld declined last night to characterize the number of lives lost inside the building except to say, "It will not be a few." The defense secretary, who wasn't injured, said he felt the shock of the crash as the jet hit between the first and second floors on the Pentagon's southwest side.
More than 23,000 people work at the Pentagon, the military's command-and-control center and the world's largest office building, most of which was undamaged. It is not known how many people worked in the area that was destroyed.
Rep. Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat, said he had been told that there were about 100 casualties at the Pentagon. He said he did not know how many of those had been killed and how many injured.
However, NBC News reported last night that there could be as many as 800 dead. A Pentagon source discounted that, saying the services believed that fewer than 500 personnel were missing and presumed dead.
At least 65 victims were taken to area hospitals by rescue workers, who struggled against the heat of fires that continued to burn into the evening. Hospital officials said the injuries ranged from minor to severe. At least 21 had been discharged by last night.
There were fears that the death count in Washington could exceed the 168 killed in the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, until yesterday the deadliest act of terrorism in American history. Bush said last night the death toll from New York and Washington was in the thousands.
The plane that hit the Pentagon, a silver Boeing 757, was heavily laden with fuel for a coast-to-coast flight to Los Angeles. It sheared the tops off nearby light poles as it roared across a busy freeway and crashed.
With a crew of six and 58 passengers, the jet had lifted off from Dulles International Airport, about 25 miles away, about 8:21 a.m. It headed west before being commandeered over Ohio by knife-wielding terrorists and flown back toward Washington.
"This is indeed the most tragic hour in America's history," Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, a senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, told reporters at an news briefing in an undamaged part of the building.
Former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, on CNN, called it "an act of war against the Pentagon."
Last night, military and civilian authorities, under the direction of the FBI, began entering the blast area to search for casualties.
"We're still taking bodies out of this building," Army Secretary Thomas White said shortly before 7 p.m.
The impact of the crash blew a hole roughly 50 feet by 77 feet through the outer section of the building, which has five concentric bands, known as rings. The section destroyed in the attack had recently been renovated and may not have been fully occupied at the time, officials said.
As part of the renovation, which began in 1993 and had been scheduled to take 20 years, thousands of blast-resistant windows are being installed. In addition, the brick walls behind the façade are being reinforced with a metal fabric mesh, which is supposed to catch debris fragments in case of an explosion.
Throughout the day, clouds of smoke filled the sky over the Potomac River and drifted across nearby Southern Maryland.
The attack halted nearly all business in official Washington for the day.
A state of emergency was declared in the city and buildings were evacuated as the federal government shut down and security was tightened. Government offices are to reopen today.
Last night, leaders of several federal departments and agencies appeared at a White House briefing to highlight the government's response to the attack. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta announced that new security measures would take effect when airline service resumes, perhaps as early as this afternoon. Included will be a ban on curbside baggage check-in, along with random identification checks, higher levels of surveillance and more stringent searches.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said thousands of FBI agents around the country would head up the investigation, which also would draw upon the resources of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and other Justice Department agencies.
Ashcroft called yesterday's assault "one of the greatest tragedies ever witnessed on our soil."
Immediately after the attacks, the Secret Service took House Speaker Dennis Hastert, second in line to the presidency, and other congressional leaders to an underground bunker in the Virginia mountains, about 75 miles west of Washington.
First lady Laura Bush, who made a brief appearance on Capitol Hill, where she had been scheduled to testify, was also taken to a safe location. Similar protective measures were taken for the Bushes' two daughters, at their colleges in Connecticut and Texas, officials said.
Vice President Dick Cheney remained at the White House in the basement Situation Room throughout the day, along with other Cabinet members and national security advisers.
Around the globe, U.S. military forces were placed on Def Con Delta alert, the highest possible level.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell broke off a visit to Peru and headed back to the United States. The State Department gave U.S. embassies around the world the authority to shut down, and several of those in the Middle East closed indefinitely.
In Washington, federal and private offices were closed as a security precaution. By midmorning, streets in and around the downtown area were jammed as thousands headed home. Many area schools closed early; by late afternoon, the center city was largely deserted.
Police and uniformed Secret Service agents, some armed with semiautomatic weapons and wearing bulletproof vests, patrolled a four-block radius around the White House and areas near the national monuments and the Capitol.
F-16 fighter aircraft flew the skies over the Washington area. As evening fell, a long line of Humvees in camouflage colors rolled slowly down K Street, the main drag for the city's high-priced lobbyists and lawyers.
Streets immediately around the White House were cleared of pedestrians and vehicles.
The Capitol, site of periodic attacks of violence over the years, was evacuated. And for the first time in history, said Lt. Dan Nichols of the Capitol police force, so, too, were all of the surrounding congressional office buildings, where almost 20,000 people work on a typical day.
Lawmakers who attended a series of police briefings said there had been a report of a plane headed toward the Capitol about the time of the Pentagon attack. That may have played a role in the precautions Nichols described as "extraordinary." Today, both houses of Congress will reconvene to pass a resolution expressing outrage over the attack.
National Guard troops helped evacuate the city, though District schools remained open all day so that children could be accounted for as parents made their way home, said John Koskinen, the city administrator. Roughly half the city's private work force went home early, he said.
Sun staff writers Ellen Gamerman, Thomas Healy, Karen Hosler and Tom Bowman contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun