Response and Recovery
The Pentagon in Flames
The first special agents from the FBI’s Washington, D.C., field office to arrive at the Pentagon were stunned to see the physical symbol of America’s defense system in flames. A 90-foot gash marred its west wall. Little could withstand the forces of a Boeing 757 traveling 530 miles per hour and loaded with more than 4,300 gallons of fuel.
The plane punched through the limestone exterior and penetrated three of the Pentagon’s five rings. The initial explosion destroyed everything in its path and sent a fireball 300 feet in the air. Part of the building collapsed within 40 minutes, making rescue and recovery operations even more difficult and dangerous.
FBI Washington Responds
Within 15 minutes of the crash, the first special agent from the Washington Field Office arrived at the Pentagon and met with the ranking official from the Arlington County Fire Department. The FBI had already built strong relationships with the local emergency and law enforcement agencies at the site. Everyone knew that fire and rescue operations were the immediate priority.
The field office also sent members of its Joint Terrorism Task Force and the National Capital Response Squad: experts in evidence collection and photography, hazardous materials, bombs, weapons of mass destruction, and special weapons and tactics.
In all, more than 700 FBI agents and professional staff from 10 different field offices worked at the Pentagon over the next 17 days recovering victims, interviewing witnesses, and collecting evidence.
Recovery Efforts at the Pentagon
FBI Special Agents and professional staff took pains to work the crime scene without interfering with rescue operations—or endangering themselves. They photographed everything, collected evidence outside, and started looking for Flight 77’s data and voice recorders. The next day, teams of special agents entered the Pentagon behind search-and-rescue crews that stabilized the building as they looked for survivors.
Agents documented victims’ remains where they were found, then moved them to a temporary morgue. Agents then escorted all remains to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Dover, Delaware, for identification. FBI teams worked in two 12-hour shifts for more than two weeks to recover and identify all victims.
Sifting Through the Rubble
After several days of shadowing specialized search and rescue teams into the Pentagon, the FBI moved the bulk of the evidence collection and recovery work outside. Members of the Evidence Response Team carefully removed the debris while constantly looking for victims. Dump trucks then moved tons of material from the building to the north parking lot, where it was staged for sorting in 35 brand-new 30-foot containers.
Workers separated larger pieces first, allowing FBI evidence technicians and hundreds of volunteers from other agencies to sift through ever-smaller debris. They sorted remains, evidence, personal items, plane parts, and classified material from other rubble and trash.
The logistics were daunting. Workers needed protective equipment, which had to be properly decontaminated, discarded, and replaced. They also needed food and water, supplies, a place to rest, and a secure perimeter. Yet after 17 grueling days—thanks to the tireless efforts of hundreds of dedicated professionals from the FBI and dozens of agencies—the FBI declared the crime scene closed.