Arlington County Fire Chief Recalls Pentagon Response

As the second World Trade Center tower was hit in New York on 9/11, people in the capital region began to wonder about their risk. At the time, there were no definitive explanations as to what was happening.

James Schwartz, now Chief of the Arlington County, Va. Fire Department, was assistant chief of operations at the time.

He was asked what to tell callers from USA Today’s headquarters in Arlington, where the company’s two 30-story towers sat on the Potomac river and on the final approach for planes heading into Ronal Reagan Washington National Airport.

“My answer was ‘tell them to evacuate the building if that’s what would make them more comfortable.’ I didn’t have another answer,” he said. Someone then pulled fire alarm to initiate the evacuation, which started a fire response to the scene – and that was when a responding crew radioed that they saw American Airlines Flight 77 going down.

Being the primary response agency to the Pentagon, the Arlington Fire Department was familiar with the building and its people, a workforce of 25,000. “We respond there almost every day,” Schwartz said.

“I arrived …about 10 minutes after the airplane hit the building,” he said. From the location of the hit, he immediately knew that it was not where the secretary of defense or joint chiefs of staff were located, but that it would nonetheless be a mass casualty event.

“The fire was significant, with smoke hundreds of feet in the air and casualties that were just strewn across the west lawn,” Schwartz said.

It fell to him to organize both the fire and EMS operations.

He said responders had some initial disbelief at what was confronting them. However, “There isn’t a lot of time to dwell on the enormity… you’ve got to go to work right away.”

Priorities included assigning resources and building confidence in those responding – affirming that their training and experience was what they needed to rely on, and that they just needed to apply it on a larger scale.

“Emotionally, it’s a very stressful event but there wasn’t time to be thinking about what else was going on,” Schwartz said. Indeed, he did not know of the collapses of the World Center towers until that night, at least 10 hours after they had occurred.

“That was so out of my range of understanding, and probably was the first moment since arriving at the scene that there was any emotion that ran through me – the gravity of what we were facing.”