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Pentagon employee recounts experience in wake of terrorist attack

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Sept. 10, 2008) -- The oily black smoke that filled the corridors of the Pentagon "was almost like something that was alive," said a survivor of the terrorist attack there Sept. 11, 2001.

"There was a concussion -- if you've ever been in an explosion before or the blast of a munition -- there's pressure on your chest and body," said Danny G.I. Pummill, director of operations for the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Medical and Health Oversight.

A pentagon icon.

"I got knocked out of my desk. And there were lots of flame, lots of fire. And there was large black ugly smoke ... We were down at the end of the hall watching it come down the hallway and it's like long tentacles and spreading out."

Then a lieutenant colonel in the Army, Pummill continues to work in the building today as a Department of the Army civilian. He was one of the many individuals that were in the Pentagon when it was attacked seven years ago, and one that also plans to attend the opening Pentagon Memorial Sept. 11, 2008, just north of the building.

Pummill works now, as he did back then, for the Army's G-1. That's the agency responsible for oversight of such things as manpower, hiring, recruiting, retention, bonuses, health affairs, medical issues, and civilian oversight.

When the Pentagon was attacked, Pummill had only been in the building, or for that matter in Washington, for about two weeks.

"It was a little strange working here in the Pentagon, in the big city, after having been at Fort Riley, Kan.," he said. "

His office then was about 100 yards from where the aircraft hit the northwest side of the building, near "corridor 4."

That morning, he said, started off like any other morning at the Pentagon -- with a meeting.

"The sergeant major was excited, it was about military education and a program called eArmyU, where all Soldiers would be allowed to take college courses 24/7 via a laptop that the government would provide," Pummill said. "He asked if it was okay if he took the meeting -- I said no problem."

Forgoing a meeting he might have attended, Pummill stayed in his office working on other things. He said the secretary came in to his office and told him and his office mates that an airplane had struck one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. They all went across the hall to find a television to watch.

"The boss was out of town - on a hunting trip in Alaska for polar bear, so we went in to his office and watched the first plane go in to the building," he said.

Later, after returning to their office, another person came in and told them of a plane flying into the World Trade Center towers. There was confusion with the message.

"We thought they were talking about the plane we'd been seeing on the TV already, and we didn't think too much about it," Pummill said.

But the confusion was short lived. About 30 seconds later, Pummill said, the ceiling in his office collapsed, and the floor came up.

"Flames and smoke went past our open door in the hallway," he said. "A couple of people in the office were hurt. One of the majors was cut by flying glass -- we had glass doors at the time. And we had no idea what it was. We thought it was maybe because they were doing construction -- that a gas tank had been left on and there had been an explosion or something."

Pummill assisted in getting the people out of his immediate area, then grabbed some noncommissioned officers and went office-to-office looking for people that might need help.

"There were a lot of frightened and confused people," he said. "Mostly we were gathering them up and sending them out along the opposite side of the E-ring so they could find an exit."

They did another sweep of the offices in their area, and then noticed injured people, people with burns, moving through the side hallways.

"There was a small restaurant down here at the time called Redskins," he said. "We went in there and pulled bottled water off the shelf and kind of poured it over the burns of the wounded people and stuff," he said.

In the restaurant, Pummill met up with a colonel in the Marine Corps. The two officers took fire extinguishers to go back and rescue more people. He said they sprayed the extinguishers in an attempt to push back the flames and smoke so they could move forward. But each advance meant another extinguisher expended and they had to go back to find another.

"We took our shirts off and wet them with water on the floor and wrapped them around our face and tried again, but we couldn't get down there," Pummill said.

Then, he said, a door opened in the hallway, and eight or nine people in suits, mostly clean, entered the hallway.

"A gentleman in the center of the group told us we need to leave the building," Pummill said. "I said no sir, there's people, we need to get to them. He asked if we knew what happened. The Marine colonel snapped to attention and said no sir, we don't. And I said it didn't matter, we needed to get back down there. The gentleman who was addressing us asked if I knew who he was -- I said no I didn't."

Pummill said he learned it was then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. He explained to Pummill and his companion what had happened, that the smoke was toxic, and that there were firemen, police and emergency workers now on scene at the Pentagon and that it was time for them to let the professionals do their jobs.

Pummill said he didn't get home that night to his wife until about 10 p.m. The next day, though, he was back at work. The Army G-1 had set up operations in a different part of the city -- to continue with the mission.

Due to a medical issue, Pummill was unable to take another command position in the Army, as he had at his prior assignment at Fort Riley. Instead, he said, he continued on at the Pentagon. And when the time came for him to retire, the Army asked him to continue on there as a Department of the Army civilian.

When he explains why he would want to stay on at the Pentagon, to continue on to work in the building after so many lives were lost, and after such a traumatic personal experience, Pummill looks to a memorial set up in a Pentagon hallway near the Army G-1. It features pictures of those G-1 employees who died as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

"If you look at the board, two of these guys were my office mates: Sgt. Maj. Lacey Ivory and I shared a desk. (Lt. Col.) Stephen Hyland was my best friend. (Lt. Col.) Kip Taylor's dad was my PMS at college. Everybody knows everybody. And pretty much most of the military on here I knew. Everybody knows Lt. Gen. Timothy Maude.

"You kind of owe it to them, owe it to the country. And how can you not do this when we are fighting a war. This is the only job now, as far as I'm concerned."

A tiny four-by-four grid of dots. A tiny representation of the Mandelbrot Set. An oscillator from the Game of Life. A twisty thing. A snowflake.