ARLINGTON, Va. -- Remember the Pentagon.
It burned, too, dismembered by the same gang that brought down the Twin Towers of New York's World Trade Center. Circumstances, though, have rendered the Pentagon a 9/11 afterthought. It's the place that survived.
At the World Trade Center, 343 New York City firefighters died. At the Pentagon, every firefighter eventually returned home. Not all came back safe and sound; the Arlington County Fire Department subsequently lost 9 percent of its force to health-related retirements.
The FDNY battalions memorably marched into the World Trade Center and were entombed there en masse. The Arlington crews subdued a different beast, smaller but still lethal, and in their victory they've remained largely anonymous.
Six years on, the Arlington firefighters and their compatriots are getting the accounting they deserve. In "Firefight: Inside the Battle to Save the Pentagon on 9/11," authors Patrick Creed and Rick Newman detail, blow by blow, what happened after American Airlines Flight 77 flew into the nation's military command center at 530 miles per hour.
The plane hit at 9:37 a.m. It weighed 182,000 pounds, carried somewhat less than 11,000 gallons of jet fuel and plowed forward, Creed and Newman write, "like a horizontal volcanic eruption." In eight-tenths of a second, the plane disintegrated. Six hundred thousand bolts and rivets blew out as shrapnel. The concussion rattled fire station doors nearly a mile away.
"What the (expletive) was that?" Arlington firefighter Derek Spector exclaimed.
"That was a (expletive) explosion," firefighter Brian Roche replied.
That's how firefighters talk. The way anyone talks, honestly, when the new world hits them in the gut.
There's a lot that can go awry in a big fire and rescue operation. Competing agencies can't communicate. Turf fights erupt. Egos intrude. Honest reporting attends to these mishaps.
One example, recounted in "Firefight": A spent Arlington crew was resting in the Pentagon courtyard when several District of Columbia firefighters tried to steal the crew's Scott air packs and face pieces. About which perfidy, only one thing could be said.
"What the (expletive)?" Arlington fire captain Brian Spring shouted.
A lot, too, can go wrong in reporting such a story. Misimpressions can coalesce into convenient anecdotes. The facts can grow soggy with sentiment. The fraternal order of those who were there fends off feelers from those who were not.
"Firefight" seems to get it right, as best as I can tell. Everything gets its proper measure. Mistakes happen, but steadfastness is the enduring virtue. At one point, an ailing firefighter sneaks behind an engine to vomit, knowing that if the medics see him he'll be yanked off the biggest job of his career.
Technical competence is esteemed. When hulking Truck 105 couldn't fit through a Pentagon tunnel, officers cut the rear tiller cab off with an electric saw. The truncated vehicle squeezed through with two inches to spare.
Good management matters. By Sept. 21, incident commander Jim Schwartz, now the Arlington County fire chief, and his colleagues could relinquish control to the FBI. Arlington's deft crisis management is now taught as a case study to students at the Harvard Business School.
Creed and Newman appear well suited to capturing this story. Creed is a volunteer firefighter and a U.S. Army civil affairs officer. He's obviously got heart. At one point, after Creed deployed to Iraq, he ended up conducting one evening interview with an Arlington firefighter by satellite phone while his base was under mortar attack. Newman is a reporter for U.S. News & World Report, a former Pentagon correspondent and the author of another book.
Together, they're able to translate the requisite technical and emotional languages.